By Lucas Aykroyd – IIHF.com
Denmark’s magical ride as an Olympic first-timer continues. The Danes edged Latvia 3-2 on Tuesday in the lone qualification playoff game at Beijing’s Wukesong Sports Centre and will face the ROC team in the quarter-finals.
“We’ve come a long way ever since we’ve been in the top division [of the IIHF World Championship] and now we’re in the quarter-finals of the Olympics,” said assistant captain Frans Nielsen. “It’s been a great journey over the last 20 years.”
Of facing ROC, Danish head coach Heinz Ehlers said: “I see them as one of the favourites to win the tournament, but we gave them a good battle in the first round. We played them [hard] and hopefully we can show up with the same energy and be ready to compete with them.”
This was a gritty, physical affair with plenty of pain dished out on both sides.
Markus Lauridsen scored the go-ahead goal on an early third-period power play. Morten Poulsen and Julian Jakobsen got their first Olympic goals for Denmark, which outshot Latvia 31-27.
Danish starting goalie Sebastian Dahm was strong with 25 saves. He was busy early as the Latvians peppered him with shots and made several game-saving stops as things progressed.
“I think the difference was our goalie,” said Ehlers. “He played a huge role tonight. We were not as good as we hoped we would be. I think Latvia played really well, and it was a really tough game for us.”
Captain Lauris Darzins scored twice for Latvia. After the game, the 37-year-old Dinamo Riga veteran announced his retirement from the Latvian national team. Renars Krastenbergs, the leading Latvian scorer, added two assists.
“If you want to win games, you’ve got to score goals,” said Darzins. “We were up 2-1 and we had pretty huge chances. We didn’t capitalize and we ended up short. It’s a game of scoring goals and our opponent came up better today in that area.”
“It’s disappointing,” Latvia’s Rodrigo Abols admitted. “It’s not like we didn’t do enough to deserve the win today. I think our problem the whole tournament was that we tried to play too pretty. If you look at how other teams scored on us, [they’d] get a shot through, get some people out there, and get the puck in the net. I think we were lacking that in the whole tournament.”
This victory is a huge moment for Danish hockey. The best Denmark has ever done at an IIHF World Championship is eighth place (2010, 2016). With this performance on international hockey’s biggest stage in Beijing, the Nordic nation of 5.8 million has a reason to get excited.
The Danes overachieved in Group B with wins over Czechia (2-1) and Switzerland and a narrow loss to the ROC team (2-0). Now they have another chance to upset the powerful squad of Russians, featuring seven returnees from the OAR team that won gold in PyeongChang 2018.
“It’s going to be anyone’s tournament,” Nielsen said. “Germany did it last time. I don’t know if we expected to be in the quarter-finals, but now we’re here and we’ve got everything to win. [The ROC team] has got everything to lose, so we’ve just got to go back at it tomorrow.”
The Latvians exit the Olympics with four straight losses.
For Latvia, Janis Kalnins got the start in net, but head coach Harijs Vitolins unusually pulled the Vaxjo Lakers goalie just 7:47 in – apparently due to an injury – and put in Ivars Punnenovs. During the Olympic qualification tournament Latvia won in Riga, Punnenovs allowed just one goal in three games.
The Danes picked up their tempo and Poulsen opened the scoring on a bad-angle rebound from the goal line at 12:02. The 33-year-old role forward, a nine-time IIHF World Championship participant, roared with joy.
“We kind of put pressure on the Ds and we got it up to the Ds around with some traffic,” said Jakobsen. “Morten [Poulsen] made a good play. I think it bounced off the goalie.”
Darzins returned to the Latvian lineup after missing the 5-2 loss to Slovakia. The three-time Olympian got hurt when falling into the door to the Finnish bench in the game before that, but he looked fully recovered when he tallied the equalizer at 16:23.
Darzins got a breakaway on a stretch pass from Krastenbergs, fought off defender Emil Kristensen’s stick check, and deked to the forehand to beat Dahm. It was an impressive display in his 150th and final game with the Latvian national team.
Moments later, Abols, who wore the “C” when Darzins was out, dumped Denmark’s Nicklas Jensen into the boards on a heavy hit, and the Jokerit sniper was shaken up. However, Jensen would continue.
Defensive lapses plagued the Danes in the second period. In the opening minute, Krastenbergs and Darzins nearly connected again on a 2-on-1, but blueliner Matias Lassen was alert to break it up as they entered the Danish zone.
Latvia’s power play has been one of its more effective weapons, and Darzins gave his team a 2-1 lead at 2:33, stepping into the right faceoff circle and zinging one past Dahm. Latvia would finish 4-for-11 with the man advantage in Beijing.
The Latvians kept pressing. Riharts Bukarts got loose on another breakaway, but his backhand flew high and wide as Dahm stretched out. The Danish goalie came up huge on a 2-on-0 break as Andris Dzerins and Nikolajs Jelisejevs were unable to beat him.
“Sebastian had some really big saves for us in the second period that kept us in the game and it felt a little bit like they ran out of steam,” Nielsen said.
Jakobsen delivered the 2-2 equalizer with 3:03 left in the middle frame. The older brother of Danish women’s national team captain Josefine Jakobsen caught the Latvians at the end of a long shift, whipping home a high shot from the right faceoff circle.
“It was a good play by Nicolai Meyer,” said Jakobsen. “He was working hard in the corner and he’s a really skilled playmaker. He found me in the slot and I just tried to get it quick to the net and luckily it went in.”
Denmark’s Frederik Storm, who shone with three points against Switzerland, had a great opportunity on an odd-man rush in the dying moments of the period. But Storm elected to pass instead of shoot, and it fizzled.
To open the third period, Darzins took an untimely interference penalty in open ice. Denmark capitalized for a 3-2 lead at 1:45. Markus Lauridsen bulged the twine with a long shot through traffic. Assists went to Nielsen and Mikkel Boedker, who, in Danish NHL history, rank first (473 points) and fourth (327 points) in scoring respectively.
“We did a good job of getting the puck in and we moved it around a little bit,” Nielsen said. “It was a great shot by Markus and good screen by the guys in the front.”
Shortly afterwards, Dahm was sharp to stymie Bukarts and Martins Dzierkals on back-to-back opportunities to maintain the lead.
With under four minutes left, Latvia got its second power play of the third period with Nicholas B. Jensen sent off for slashing. But the Danes checked tenaciously and denied their opponents the tying goal. With half a minute remaining, a slashing penalty to Krastenbergs ended Latvia’s hopes in Beijing.
“It’s the Olympics, it’s a huge stage and everybody wants to be here,” Darzins said. “We went out, did our best. I know we’re going to feel bad about ourselves today. Some time will pass by and I know I will remember with a smile all this experience.”
This was the third time Latvia has appeared in an Olympic qualification playoff game. When the current playoff format debuted in Vancouver in 2010, the Latvians got a brilliant outing from netminder Edgars Masalskis as they were outshot 50-26 by the Czechs. They scored two late goals to tie it up. However, Latvia lost 3-2 on David Krejci’s overtime goal.
In 2014 in Sochi, Latvia advanced with a 3-1 win over Switzerland on the strength of two Darzins goals, including the power-play winner in the first period. After a dramatic 2-1 quarter-final loss to eventual champion Canada, Latvia earned its best Olympic finish with eighth place.
Latvia’s World Championship peak is seventh place (1997, 2004, 2009). The small Baltic country’s next shot at IIHF glory will come at the 2022 IIHF World Championship in Tampere and Helsinki (13 to 29 May).