Nikolaj Ehlers, Oliver Bjorkstrand and Mads Eller expect victories for their improving nation. (photo by Steve Russell/Toronto Star)
The Danes are a plucky underdog at the world juniors but no longer see themselves as a gracious temporary guest. They're hungry to join the upper tier of international hockey for good.
It was a play that transcended a single game.
Winless Denmark found itself deadlocked with the winless Czech Republic in a crucial Group B affair Monday afternoon, and Winnipeg Jets prospect Nikolaj Ehlers found the puck on his stick with his Danes on a power play early in the third period. Using his eye-popping speed, Ehlers zoomed into the high slot, charging up a wrister before surprising everyone on the ice with a gorgeous backdoor pass onto Mathias Asperup's stick. Easy goal, 3-2 lead for the Danes.
In the end, the go-ahead marker didn't stop the Czechs from tying the game and winning in overtime on a beautiful goal from Bruins 2014 first-rounder David Pastrnak. And the Czechs largely deserved the victory, having outshot Denmark 47-14. Still, seeing Ehlers make a play that exotic, that skilled, said something more significant. It wasn't a good goal "for Denmark." It was an elite play by an elite young player for an emerging nation. It reminded us to take these Danes more seriously than we ever have.
Denmark entered the 2015 tournament as a clear underdog after winning the Div. I Group A tournament last year to move up from the second tier. It's common, however, to see a team accomplish just that, join the top bracket the next year, get blown out and tip its cap, just happy to have rubbed shoulders with the big boys. It happened last year with Norway, which qualified the year prior only to lose every game, and with a minus-26 goal differential. As we see Denmark start to invade the NHL, however, with the likes of Frederik Andersen, Mikkel Boedker and Frans Nielsen playing significant roles for their teams, it's understandable the 2015 world junior squad doesn't wasn't to be classified as "happy to be here."
"A lot of people say we're the underdogs, but I don't see us like that," said Ehlers, selected ninth overall in 2014 by the Jets. "I see us as a team that can compete and win some games. We almost beat Russia, we should've won today, and the game against Sweden was a tough game. But we can play better. We play like we did against Russia."
Denmark led that game against Russia only to blow a two-goal stake and lose in overtime. Sweden tossed the Danes aside 5-1, but it's still noteworthy this team has led Russia and the Czech Republic in the tournament. This is no Norway 2014 redux.
It's even been visible in the Danes' body language throughout their first three games. The penalties they take are are aggressive. On one charging call against the Czechs, Mads Eller cleared the ice by a foot, looking like a young, maniacal Darcy Tucker. This team has swagger. Oliver Bjorkstrand, a Columbus Blue Jackets pick (89th in '13), described his nation as "just so close" to a breakthrough and said he still hoped his team could "stay alive for the quarterfinal" with a win over Switzerland in Denmark's final preliminary game.
Even if they don't, and if they slide back down the relegation trail, don't expect this nation to stay down for long. Something has changed. Ehlers noted the Danes aren't just populating their own country's best league anymore, but also the best leagues in Sweden. We've seen the country's impact at the NHL level, with seven players having played there in 2014-15 so far.
One of the most telling sights after Monday's defeat: a young, well-dressed blonde boy in the press box, head buried against a wall, bawling his eyes out. An older woman with a strong resemblance, presumably his mother, comforted him. And while it would've been impolite to ask, "are you Danish?" the conclusion was all too logical: this young man is sad about the loss, because he no longer expects his country to lose.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin