BERNE – In Fribourg fans hoped it would be the year of the Dragon after winning the regular season. Instead it was archrival SC Bern that won the final series in six games.
For the team from the country’s capital it was the 13th national championship while Fribourg-Gottéron, with the Dragons nickname, keeps its reputation as the eternal runner-up with zero gold and five silver medals.
SC Bern, from the Swiss capital, won the sixth game 5-1 on Tuesday. The score was pumped up thanks to two empty-netters, although the outcome was never in doubt after an early 1-0 and 3-0 after two periods.
Coached by 42-year-old Antti Törmänen, who was on Finland’s first world champion squad in 1995, the “Bears” went through three rollercoaster-like series in the post-season after finishing the regular season in second place. Whenever it seemed to look hopeless for the team, it managed to bounce back in convincing fashion.
Geneva-Servette, who led the league in autumn but dropped down to seventh place after a rough winter, almost ousted SC Bern in the quarter-finals. After four games the Genevans led the series 3-1, being one win away from an upset. But SC Bern then won its home game 2-1 in overtime, the next road game 4-3 in a shootout and the seventh game 4-1 to earn a semi-final berth.
Also in the semis the Bernese were in deep water before turning things around. Both teams won their first two home games but EV Zug did it in style. SC Bern needed overtime in both matches, Zug won 8-2 and 5-2 and continued with a 4-0 blanking of SC Bern on the road to take the 3-2 lead in the series. Again Bern reacted when they were close to elimination.. They won in Zug 4-3 and the deciding game on home ice 4-1.
Fribourg-Gottéron also had its troubles. They blew a 3-0 lead in the quarter-finals against underdog EHC Biel but eventually got in play-off shape for game 7. In the semi-finals they eliminated defending champion ZSC Lions Zurich 4-1 to set up the final between the two regional rivals that are just a 30-minute (35-kilometre) car or train ride apart..
“Bern didn’t have it easy in the play-offs but they always found a way to clinch the series, also against us,” Fribourg-Gottéron’s head coach Hans Kossmann said after the final game.
“Despite the loss we had a great season. We’re winners who lost against a better opponent [in the finals], but we surprised many people and now it’ll be my job to find a way for the team to take the next step.”
Games between the two teams are emotional because of the cities’ proximity, their historic rivalry and also regular player exchange. SC Bern, the club with the highest revenue in the league and the biggest following in European hockey, is able to lure Fribourg’s best talent northwards. On the other side, Fribourg has regularly signed players who didn’t get a contract extension in Berne. Fans from the capital sometimes ironically refer to Fribourg-Gottéron as their old people’s home.
With that kind of player fluctuation between the clubs, the final series was able to split whole families when it came to cheering for a team in the final series. It was most obvious for the Plüss family. Long-time national player Martin Plüss is the captain and a centre for SC Bern, his younger brother Benny a first-line winger for Fribourg.
The teams already met in a tight final in 1992 and both finals had in common one name on Fribourg’s side: Bykov. In 1992 SC Bern mostly managed to neutralize the world-class duo of Vyacheslav Bykov and Andrei Khomutov with its trademark rough style of play to win the championship.
In 2013 they managed to keep Fribourg’s scoring leader Andrei Bykov, Vyacheslav’s son, entirely away from scoring. Also his linemate Julien Sprunger struggled, with only two goals while Benny Plüss had four markers, and was easily his team’s best player.
To make matters worth, Fribourg lost its tough defenceman Shawn Heins and second-line centre Christian Dubé due to injuries early in the series and in the last game also Bykov, who was centering the first unit. This was certainly one of the reasons why Fribourg’s comeback attempt in the series fell short.
SC Bern had a great start to the final after defeating Fribourg away 4-1 before claiming a 4-3 victory on home ice. But the “Bears” forgot to capitalize on the advantage and allowed their rivals to tie up the series at two.
SC Bern didn’t play every entertaining hockey in their two first games. Some observers called it “Antti Hockey”, a word play with the coach’s name that stood in contrast to Fribourg’s skilled but often ineffective showing.
But in game 3, SC Bern appeared sloppy and Sprunger’s third-period goal was enough for Fribourg to claim a 1-0 victory.
In game 4 on the road, Fribourg-Gottéron punished SC Bern’s passive play again. Two early goals from Sandy Jeannin and Benny Plüss paved the way to a 3-1 victory to tie the series at two.
Game 5 proved to be the turning point. Against a decimated and increasingly exhausted Fribourg team, the Bernese stole they key game on the road 3-2 after a 3-0 lead.
So at the end “Antti Hockey” proved to be the winning formula and the coach couldn’t care less about any critics as he hoisted the trophy on Tuesday night. “We were the best team. In the end it’s all about winning and we desperately wanted to win,” Törmänen said. “In one week nobody will care how we played.”
Before 17,131 fans on home ice, SC Bern put out the Dragons’ fire before Fribourg even could settle. Martin Plüss, who would have got the Playoff MVP honours had there been any, opened the scoring in the first period and two goals from Travis Roche and Alain Berger – who returned midway through the season from AHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs – in the second period gave the home team another 3-0 lead.
In a disciplined game without a single penalty call during the first 50 minutes of play Simon Gamache cut the lead with 98 seconds left in regulation time but two empty-net goals sealed the 5-1 win and the champions’ trophy for SC Bern.
It was an emotional moment for Törmänen’s team after having lost last year’s final series at the same arena when Zurich’s Steve McCarthy scored the championship-winning goal with two seconds left in game 7. This time his team made sure that the post-season wouldn’t end in tears after mastering some critical post-season moments.
Lausanne returns, Langnau relegated
For the first time in five years a new team has been promoted to the National League A following the best-of-seven promotion/relegation series.
Lausanne HC returns to the top league after being relegated in 2005 while the SCL Tigers Langnau have to return to the National League B where they came from in 1998 – this just a couple of months after the re-opening of their renovated and upgraded arena.
Lausanne won its third NLB title since being relegated to the second tier but this time they also won the series against the last-ranked team from the top league, 4-2 against Langnau.
On Tuesday night the team from the second-biggest francophone city in Switzerland won the sixth game before a sell-out crowd of 9,244 fans on home ice 3-2 with a roster that includes former French Stanley Cup winner Cristobal Huet in net, former Swiss national team forwards Thomas Deruns and Paul Savary, and Austrian national team forward Oliver Setzinger.
With its impressive fan following, Lausanne hopes to establish itself in the top league better than during their last stints in the 1995/1996 season and between 2001 and 2005. With Lausanne in the league the NLA may break its own European league attendance record next season.