As the Champions Hockey League is coming to the end of its fourth season since its relaunch, one thing is clear: Swedish teams have dominated the tournament. All three champions have come from the Swedish Hockey League (SHL), with Lulea beating Frolunda in the first final, on home ice, and the Frolunda team then taking the trophy back to Gothenburg twice in a row.
While there will be a new champion this season, the Swedes still have a chance to extend their streak, thanks to Vaxjo Lakers run to the final. The only thing standing between them and the CHL title is Finnish JYP Jyvaskyla.
The Lakers, who have a 17-point lead in the SHL standings, can be considered a favourite, especially on home ice, where they haven’t lost a game this CHL season, but the Finns are no pushover, that much is obvious just by looking at Jyvaskyla’s road to the final. The Finns have advanced twice, despite having lost the second game.
In the semi-finals, the second game went to a shootout, after both teams had won their home games by 4-2. The Finns won the shootout, lost the game 4-3, which was enough to get them a ticket to Vaxjo. Veteran centre Jarkko Immonen scored one in regulation time and added the game-winner in the shootout.
“Our road to the final sure was special. I don’t remember having been in a situation before in which a loss has helped us advance in a tournament. We’ve played well at home but the away games have been tougher for us, I’m not sure why,” Immonen told IIHF.com.
“I think that since we’ve had the advantage in the goal difference after the first game, the other teams has had nothing to lose and they’ve played really offensive hockey. And we’ve played some pretty good teams,” he adds.
In the final, there is only game which may work in the Finns’ advantage. On the other hand, the game will be played on Vaxjo’s home ice, which may work in the Finns’ disadvantage.
Immonen, 35, is too experienced to worry about the Lakers’ home-ice advantage.
“I hope the arena is packed, it doesn’t really matter who the crowd is cheering for, as long as it’s loud,” he says.
The 2011 world champion, tournament leading scorer and its All-Star centre returned to Finland after almost a decade in the Swiss league and the KHL – where he won the Gagarin Cup in 2010 with Ak Bars Kazan.
“It’s been nice to be back home, the Finnish league is a good league, the hockey is fast-paced and fun,” he says.
While Immonen’s played CHL games with JYP and EV Zug in 2016 and 2017, he says he doesn’t know too much about Lakers – except for the team’s Finns, Tuomas Kiiskinen and Janne Pesonen, who was Immonen’s teammate in Kazan and the Finnish national team when they won the titles.
“I know they’re a great team and we’ll go over details before the final but at the same time, we’ll focus on our game and if we play the way we want to, we should be able to put up a fight,” says the modest Finn.
“I’d love for us to be the first Finnish team to win the Champions Hockey League title. The tournament has improved every year and it’s not easy to get to the final.”
Due to a hectic schedule in the Finnish league, JYP’s coaching staff took a drastic decision last week, and iced a junior-laden team in a Finnish league game against IFK Helsinki, to give the team’s veterans time to get ready for the CHL final.
“The CHL final is a big deal both for the team and for the organization financially, and we know how hard it is to get to the final so we don’t want to let this opportunity to slip through our fingers,” said coach Marko Virtanen.
Even if JYP wins, there’s probably not going to be a parade in Jyvaskyla, says Immonen.
“I’m afraid there won’t be time to do victory laps due to Finnish league schedule,” he says.
“But I’d rank a CHL title high on my list of achievements,” he adds.