BUFFALO, NEW YORK - JANUARY 4: Denmark's Daniel Nielsen #21 celebrates his first period goal against Belarus with teammates Rasmus Heine #9 and Joachim Blichfeld #20 during the relegation round of the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)
Danes get 3-2 shootout win, Belarusians go down
Denmark edged Belarus 3-2 in a shootout to sweep their best-of-three relegation series on Thursday at KeyBank Center.
Denmark will return to the elite division for the fifth consecutive year at the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship in Canada (Vancouver and Victoria). Half the team is eligible to play there.
"I’m happy about it and I’m also proud," said Denmark's Daniel Nielsen. "It’s good for my country. It’s so nice to see our country, when we are so little, that we can stay in the [elite division] and keep fighting with the other teams in the top 10. It’s awesome."
Battling through a spate of injuries and illness, the Danes blew a 2-0 third-period lead in Game Two, but Jacob Schmidt-Svejstrup got the shootout winner, and Andreas Grundtvig and Jonas Rondbjerg, with the final shootout tally, also converted.
"I tried that move a few times in practice and it worked out," said Rondbjerg of his high backhand tally, which prompted a wild celebration. "So I just thought I’d do the same. Lucky it went in."
In regulation, team points leader Rondbjerg had a goal and an assist, and Nielsen also scored. Joachim Blichfeld, who left midway after being injured, added two assists. Shots favored Belarus 30-28.
Captain Maxim Sushko led the way with a goal and an assist for Belarus, and Ilya Litvinov had the other goal.
"It’s so hard right now," said Sushko. "In my head there are only bad Russian words right now. It’s life and it’s really tough for us."
The Danes heartstoppingly won Game One 5-4 on two third-period goals at 19:26 and 19:45.
Newly promoted Belarus competed hard in this tournament, especially in losses to Switzerland (3-2) and the Czech Republic (6-5). However, the Belarusians have only avoided relegation twice in their World Junior history (2001, 2002), and their strong power play and penalty kill weren't enough to save them in Buffalo.
"I enjoyed playing here against Sweden and Russia," said Sushko. "It’s so much better than playing against Germany and Latvia. I can’t say the other teams are worse, but I just enjoyed playing against the best teams."
Even though Danish captain Christian Mathias-Wesje returned after a one-game suspension and Schmidt-Svejstrup after being ill, two other players sat out: forward Nikolaj Krag (concussion, for the second straight game) and defenceman Christian Larsen (illness).
Denmark didn't make life easy on itself. Just four seconds in, Nielsen was sent off for high-sticking. But the Danes weathered the early storm, and the assistant captain redeemed himself by opening the scoring at 10:47. Following a faceoff in Belarus’s end. Blichfeld centered the puck from behind the goal line to Nielsen, who tallied from the slot.
Less than two minutes later, Denmark went up 2-0 when Blichfeld’s bad-angle release from the left side squeezed past Belarus starter Andrei Grishenko and Rondbjerg poked the puck across the goal line.
"Our coach told us before every game that we have to play all 60 minutes every game," said Sushko. "But it looked like we were not playing in the first period."
Belarus called its timeout and pulled Grishenko, who’d been fighting the puck, in favor of backup Dmitri Rodik. Rodik did his best to keep Belarus in it, stoning Grundtvig – the Game One hero with the last-minute winner – and Philip Schultz on close-range chances before the first period ended.
The Belarusians didn’t surrender in the second period. At 6:40, slippery forward Ivan Drozdov drew a penalty when he got to the Danish net on a partial breakaway and was stopped by Kasper Krog.
Belarusian defenceman Dmitri Deryabin drilled Blichfeld into the boards with a dangerous hit and received a five-minute major for boarding and a match penalty at 10:45.
There was a long delay and a hush fell over the spectators as paramedics took the 19-year-old forward off on a stretcher. It was an unfortunate tournament conclusion for the prospect of the San Jose Sharks, who currently have Danish veterans Mikkel Boedker and Jannik Hansen on their roster. Blichfeld gave a thumbs-up as he left.
"We played together at the last World Juniors too," said Rondbjerg. "We knew each other before. He’s a really good player. We had good connections. It’s sad to see him lying down on the ice and carried out. Hopefully it’s not too bad."
Deryabin's punishment nullified a Belarusian power play, but after a 4-on-4 sequence, the Danes couldn't cash in with a 5-on-4 for 1:39.
In the third period, Belarus had a monumental chance to get back in the game with a 5-on-3 for 1:14, as Nielsen went off for boarding and Rasmus Heine for elbowing. They took full advantage with two goals.
Power play quarterback Vladislav Yeryomenko and Sushko played catch before the Belarus captain broke Krog's shutout bid, converting from the side of the net at 8:64.
The tying goal, just 46 seconds later at 5-o-4, was a thing of old Soviet-school beauty, as Sushko fed Viktor Bovbel down low and he centered it to Ilya Litvinov, who made no mistake.
In overtime, Denmark used its timeout when it got a power play, as Yeryomenko was called for tripping up Rondbjerg. However, the Danes failed to capitalize on their chances. Drozdov feinted past the Danish defence for a nice chance with 30 seconds left in overtime, but Krog foiled him.
"When we were in Grand Forks two years ago for the U18, we lost in a shootout," Schmidt-Svejstrup recalled. "We got relegated. That wasn’t a great feeling, letting down the guys who were coming up. But obviously winning is the most fun in the world. It’s great."
After the game, Belarus's three best players of the tournament were honored: Vladislav Yeryomenko, Ivan Drozdov, and Maxim Sushko. For Denmark, it was Jeppe Mogensen, Jonas Rondbjerg, and Joachim Blichfeld.
Asked when Belarus would earn promotion back to the elite division, Sushko unhesitatingly said: "Next year."
Belarus will be replaced by Kazakhstan, which earned promotion by winning the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship Division I Group A in France a few weeks ago.
Denmark will make history in May as it hosts the senior IIHF World Championship for the first time (Copenhagen and Herning). Whether any of these U20 players participate in that tournament remains to be seen. After all, there are currently seven Danes in the NHL and five in the KHL, not to mention other top European leagues.
However, coach Olaf Eller’s boys have done what they had to do to keep their country among the world’s elite at this level. "It means everything," Rondbjerg said. "That’s our goal heading into the tournament, to survive. We did that."