Worlds: Danes stealing show in preliminaries

There is something different about Team Denmark at the 2010 IIHF World Championships in Germany.

For the last half-decade, Denmark has begun to show that its national hockey program is one of the fastest-rising in Europe. At one juncture, Team Denmark played its way to the top level of the men's, U-20 and U-18 world championships, although it subsequently got relegated back to Division I at the junior levels. At the IIHF World Championships, Denmark consistently has managed to avoid relegation, but the team never had been much of a threat against the top hockey countries.

Team Denmark usually goes into the Worlds with an eye on the future. Denmark typically has put most of its tournament focus on beating Scandinavian rival Norway, picking up a second win against a team that's vulnerable to relegation and gaining experience against the medal contenders. The idea is to build for the future. If the first two games of the 2010 tournament is any barometer of Denmark's progress, that future has started now.

In their first two games of the three-game preliminary-round phase of the tournament, Denmark upset Finland, 4-1, and overcame Team USA in overtime, 2-1. A game Wednesday against the host Germans will complete group play for Denmark. Remarkably, Denmark sits in first place in Group D. A win Wednesday would clinch the pool, but even if the Danes lose in overtime or via shootout to Germany, they are in good shape to win their pool by virtue of their goal differential and head-to-head win against Finland. If so, Denmark would open the round-robin, medal-round qualification segment of the tournament against the third-place team in Group A, currently Belarus.

Denmark boasts a solid pool of talent at this tournament, featuring players who are young, but who have gained several years' worth of senior-level international experience. The club is led by the likes of NHL players Peter Regin, Frans Nielsen and Lars Eller. All three have scored at least once in the wins against Finland and the United States. But Denmark plays like a team with no stars, and its work ethic in the tournament has been second to none.

"I don't think anyone expected this before the tournament, but the guys really came together and it is just amazing how everybody competes and just pushes each other. No one is selfish out there. It is all about the team and that is what is so amazing right now," veteran defenseman Jesper Damgaard (Malmo Redhawks of Sweden's Allsvenskan league) told

Goaltending was supposed to be a weak spot for Denmark. Veteran Peter Hirsch rarely has turned in his best games on the international stage and now is relegated to a backup role. Meanwhile, in a 10-3 pre-tournament pasting at the hands of Sweden, Patrick Galbraith (Bjorkloven Umea, Allsvenskan) let in several questionable goals. But through the first two games, the goaltending has held up well and the team in front has done an excellent job of protecting the net. Frederik Andersen (Frederikshavn White Hawks, Denmark) turned back 36 of 37 shots in the win against Finland, while Galbraith made 30 saves in beating the U.S.

In the opener against Finland, Nielsen and Regin pumped shots past Nashville Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne in the first five minutes of the game to stake the Danes to a 2-0 lead. Petri Kontiola soon got one of the goals back for Finland, but the Denmark never relinquished its early advantage. In the middle period, Julian Jakobsen (Sodertalje SK, Swedish Elitserien) restored the two-goal lead for Denmark. Nielsen added an empty-netter late in the third period to seal the victory.

In the game against Team USA, Demark outworked the U.S. for most of the opening period, but the teams were scoreless through 20 minutes. In the second, an Eller power-play goal forged a 1-0 lead for Denmark, but the Phoenix Coyotes' Keith Yandle tied the game four minutes later with a power-play goal of his own. Galbraith turned back a surge from Team USA the rest of the period, making 16 saves for the period to keep the game tied, 1-1. Denmark buckled down defensively in the third, outshooting the U.S., 10-6, but were unable to get another puck past the Florida Panthers' Scott Clemmensen. Finally, at 2:04 of overtime, defenseman Stefan Lassen scored the game-winning goal.

Denmark knows it still has work to do to earn its way into the medal round, and a medal remains unlikely despite wins against Finland and the U.S. But they stand a solid chance of accomplishing the goal of a medal-round berth and improving upon their best previous finish at the Worlds (10th place in 2007). Even more important, Denmark has made a statement that it no longer is a team that even a top-notch opponent can afford to take lightly.

Said Damgaard to, "It is huge for Danish hockey and for all the players to maybe reach the quarterfinals of the World Championship. That would be a huge thing."