Finland took to the ice in blue to face the host team in their white and red jerseys, backed up by a crowd that was nearly all decked in red and white themselves. In Herning, Denmark, sprinkled in the Danish crowd, were the occasional bits of blue on the Finnish fans who were very much in the minority.
There was one other touch of blue in all the red and white: the mask and pads on Frederik Andersen — Leafs blue To offset the Danish lion on the white ground of his national team jersey.
The Finnish lions, Leijonat as they’re known, were opposite, looking to win a battle they likely thought of as theirs by right. The lions on their chests are the same lion, relics of their shared past as neighbours of Sweden and reminders of wars and conquests, occupations and shared kings. There were a lot of friends in the stands, one painted red, one blue, and those days of war are gone, but these teams don’t exactly like each other.
Finland is the old hockey country. They know this game, they play their own style of it, and they’ve got generations of players who can tell you tales of winning.
In 1976, Hannu Kapanen played in the Olympics, the Canada Cup and the World Championships for Finland. Sami Kapanen, his son, played in the Olympics three times, and did the Olympics and Worlds double twice. The last time he suited up for the World Championships was 2010.
Kasperi Kapanen has played for Finland dating back to the U16 team, but this is the first time he’s ever played for the senior men’s team. He’s an old man of 21 now, it’s about time he followed in the footsteps of his grandfather.
Before Wednesday’s game, Kapanen had two goals playing on the top line with Mikael Granlund and Mikko Rantanen. They’ve played very well, and were very good again against Denmark.
In the first two games, Kapanen seemed stymied by playing left wing to Rantanen’s right, and he was left back in the slot waiting for a pass while Rantanen, who is too big to move, and too good not to have at the goal mouth, was taking all the shots. In thes Denmark game, and the Norway game before it, they sorted themselves out. I couldn’t tell by the end of the Denmark game if they’d switched sides permanently or were just swapping around on the ice as the situation warranted it. Either way, they were covering the play well, and one of Finland’s goals came while Kapanen had dropped back to cover some aggressive defender moves. A very Leafs-like seamlesss transition.
This top line for Finland is tough to play against, but sometimes a player just lights up in a tournament, and this Worlds is Sebastian Aho’s Worlds. He leads with 12 points after only four games, and his linemate Teuvo Teravainen is right behind him with 11. Finland’s second line is unstoppable. Unless you’re Freddie Andersen.
Finland has started this tournament the easy way, and they’ve cruised through Korea, Norway and Latvia before they faced what they may have thought was more of the same. They had won two of those games 8-1 and the other 7-0.
Denmark isn’t an old country at this game. As captain Peter Regin said after the game, the World Championships mean a lot to Denmark because he believes they have risen as high as they can now this year, and they need more kids to pick hockey instead of soccer and handball to grow their game any more. Regin, like a few of his teammates, plays in the KHL on the Finnish team Jokerit. He knows the Finnish game. He also had an NHL career; you might remember him on the Ottawa Senators.
The fairy tale for the Danes this year was supposed to happen at the Olympics. They worked at it, stacked the team for the qualifiers in the summer of 2016 with their small clutch of NHLers, and they lost Andersen in the qualifing games to injury, and then they lost to Latvia. As it turns out, they wouldn’t have had all these NHLers at the Olympics (two San Jose Sharks rushed over to join Wednesday’s game), but they believed that was the goal they were striving for, and the Worlds at home were just icing on the cake.
Go ahead and throw out the cake, Gary Bettman, the Danes are just eating the icing.
Denmark have finished eighth two times since they rose to top level status in the world in 2003. They are looking to match that or better it this year. They might just do it. The Danes are playing this tournament the opposite way to the Finns. They’re doing the hard part first. In fact, the hard part is done until the medal round.
Denmark opened the tournament with a surprise shootout win over the weaker than expected Germans. They followed up with a loss by a respectable score to the USA with Andersen in net, and then they sacrificed his backup, Sebastian Dahm, to Connor McDavid. Canada tuned them up 7-1. You know us, we aren’t here to make your fairy tale dreams come true.
And then they met the Finns, and just didn’t roll over. They played a tough, aggressive game, and got back as good as they gave.
This game is so chippy, it's like both teams think they're playing Sweden.— Pension Plan Puppets (@PPPLeafs) May 9, 2018
Denmark towers over the Finns for the most part, but the Finns have Aho, and he’s just the beginning of their skilled players, most of them NHLers or top-level KHL players. The Danes have Frans Nielsen, those two Sharks, the KHLers, Oliver Bjorkstrand, who always looks better in red and white than he does in Columbus Blue, and four guys named Jensen, who I won’t pretend to sort out.
Frans Nielsen opened the scoring; Finland answered back with Aho. Bjorkstrand got the lead, and Finland answered with Granlund. Aho’s goal came from Finland’s brutally efficient power play, and Granlund’s came with five minutes left.
Tied at two-all, the game was wide open for a hero to decide it, and there were several: Andersen, who withstood a siege and never lost his cool even though he lost his stick twice. Oliver Lauridsen and Frederik Storm, who both blocked shots when Andersen was stickless, get some credit, and then Nichlas Hardt, who plays across the bridge from Copenhagen in Malmö, Sweden, scored with two minutes to go.
Denmark won the battle of the lions, a victory almost as sweet as if it had been Sweden they’d been playing. Someday, if enough Danes stop playing soccer and realize just how great a sport hockey is, they’ll beat the Swedes (and maybe supply the Leafs with a few more players in years to come.).
Next up for Denmark is Norway on Friday, then Korea, and then Latvia, a team they owe payback to for that qualification loss. They have a very real chance to add three more wins and finish in at least fourth place. Finland has to play Canada and the USA yet, so they might miss the win they didn’t get over the Danes, but those three teams sure seem to have the top three spots locked up in Group B.
Canada has Norway next as well, today, and they must be thinking wistfully of goalies they might add to their roster. Curtis McElhinney has the big win over Denmark to his name so far, and Norway won’t be any trouble, but Finland awaits in a few days.
In Group A in Copenhagen, Russia has yet to give up a goal, Nikita Zaitsev is relaxing by playing in the offensive zone all the time, and he has three assists in three games. Sweden is also undefeated, and the contest for second and third there will be the Czechs and the Swiss most likely.
The next potentially exciting match with Leafs implications is Canada vs Finland on Saturday. There’s a lot of dangerous offence on the Finns. If Canada hasn’t found a goalie under a rock, it might be the win to the lions. Despair to joy can come in the space of days at a tournament like this, and Kasperi Kapanen might get a win over a red and white team yet.