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Goal in mind

by Staff Writer / Montréal Canadiens

MONTREAL – Denmark’s mandate at the World Hockey Championship is crystal clear, according to Lars Eller.

After failing to advance beyond the preliminary round in the annual tournament for five consecutive years, finding a way to extend their stay in Russia beyond a May 17th matchup with Kazakhstan is the top priority this time around.

Eller’s countrymen have only managed to reach the quarter-finals once since being promoted to the championship in 2003. It happened in 2010 in Germany, and the Canadiens’ No. 81 played a part in that achievement, helping Denmark to an eighth-place finish after suffering a 4-2 loss to Sweden in the quarter-finals.

Photo Credit: Jan Korsgaard / Danmarks Ishockey Union

“As a country, we’ve made a lot of big strides over the last decade [including back-to-back quarter-final berths at the World Junior Hockey Championship in 2015 and 2016]. Our hopes are, if everything goes well, to compete for a spot in the quarter-finals. I think that’s our goal. It’s a big challenge, but it’s one that I look forward to. We know the competition will be tough and that other countries have progressed, too. But, getting to the quarters again would be special. Every win is a big boost for us,” said Eller, who is making his fourth career appearance at the Worlds, and sporting his country’s colors in international competition for the first time since 2012.

To snap that playoff drought, the Danes will undoubtedly be relying on the likes of Eller and fellow NHLers Jannik Hansen of the Vancouver Canucks – who also just happens to be his childhood friend – and 20-year-old Nikolaj Ehlers of the Winnipeg Jets, one of the brightest young stars in the game today. Head coach Jan Karlsson has them playing alongside one another on the same line, which should provide his squad with some valuable scoring punch. Eller is adamant, though, that Denmark’s roster boasts additional depth, too.

“It’s probably close to the strongest team we’ve ever put on the ice anywhere. I feel really good about the group we’ve got for the tournament. I’m excited to see what we can accomplish,” said Eller, who is already familiar with the majority of his teammates from his playing days back home. “Jannik and I grew up playing for the same club [in Rodovre]. We went to the same school, and our dads even played together. There’s only about a handful of guys I haven’t seen play before, so I know what most of them can do on the ice. We either played together on National Junior teams or at the senior level. It’s great to be able to play with them again.”

Ehlers, in particular, and fellow Danish young gun Oliver Bjorkstrand of the Columbus Blue Jackets, both caught Eller’s eye in the NHL this past season. Their success on this side of the pond is something the former 13th-overall selection is especially proud of given his country’s efforts to further establish themselves as a formidable presence in the hockey world.

“Somehow, guys like that keep popping up from our system in Denmark. It’s pretty remarkable for a country like ours, especially when you go down in detail and look at the statistics with the population (5.6 million), number of players (4,300) and number of rinks (26) we have at home. Not too many of our guys get drafted, but the ones that do end up going high and manage to have an impact at the NHL level,” said Eller, one of seven Danes to have played NHL hockey in 2015-16. “I think this generation has shown that making it to the NHL is a possibility. It isn’t a dream scenario anymore. The road is long and tough, but it’s possible. We keep gaining new ground all the time, and it’s promising to see these guys succeeding. Hopefully, it translates into more young people playing hockey.”

Securing a spot at the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in South Korea would certainly help their cause in that regard. Final qualification will take place in early September in Minsk, with Denmark participating in a round-robin tournament against host Belarus, Slovenia and Poland. Should the Danes qualify for the Olympics, it would mark their first-ever appearance at the event.

Denmark will, however, be playing host to the 2018 World Hockey Championship in both Copenhagen and Herning, which Eller believes will be a milestone event for the country as a whole.

Photo Credit: Jan Korsgaard / Danmarks Ishockey Union

“I know they’ve been trying to get it for a while. They’re head-over-heels for landing it. They really want to show the world just how great this tournament can be there. It’s a huge thing for Danish hockey, and I think it will be the biggest sports event ever on Danish soil,” said Eller, adding that the Danes constructed a brand-new multi-purpose rink for the event – the Royal Arena in Copenhagen – which is scheduled to open come the fall. “Hopefully, they’ll be able to ice a good roster and put on a good performance at home. It means everything to have it. It’s nice to see it finally happening.”

That being said, Eller is focused squarely on the task at hand, which will include preliminary-round tilts against the likes of teammates Sven Andrighetto (May 10), Alexei Emelin (May 12) and Tomas Plekanec (May 15).

“Most of all, I’m just excited to get another shot at playing some hockey. It worked out with getting a bit of rest in Montreal and having some family time before coming over. It’s good to get that basic instinct of competing back again. I’ve always seen playing for my country as a privilege. It’s always a big honor to put on the jersey,” said Eller, who isn’t wearing a letter in Moscow, but still assumes plenty of responsibility in the leadership department. “I want to play the best that I can. We come to play every day and come to win. I absolutely want to set a strong example and be one of the hardest working guys out there. That’s the best way to be a leader.”

Matt Cudzinowski is a writer for canadiens.com.

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