HERNING, Denmark – Having played a part in 13 of the Herning Blue Fox’s 16 titles it can hardly be considered a surprise any longer. Nevertheless the uncrowned prince of Danish hockey raised a lot of eyebrows as Todd Bjorkstrand’s team retained the Al-Bank Ligaen after a coming back from a 3-1 deficit to win the series against Odense IK in seven games.
In his 14 years as a player in the city, Bjorkstrand led the team to seven Danish championships. When stepping back as a player in 2002, Bjorkstrand continued with five titles as a coach. A sixth seemed out of reach as the Herning Blue Fox found themselves playing second fiddle all season long.
The regular season was dominated by SønderjyskE Vojens and Odense while Herning only finished third. The coach decided to fine-tune his line-up and made several roster changes over the course of the season realizing the prizes weren’t to be handed out until the playoffs are over. Apart from the new players, Todd Bjorkstrand also could make use of a secret weapon when facing the top seed in the playoff semi-final.
SønderjyskE had beaten Herning in four of the five mutual games during the regular season but now faced a team that has a coach that knows what it takes to win championships. Much to anyone’s surprise Herning won the series 4-1 to set up a series against Odense IK, which had come through the quarter- and semi-finals unbeaten so far.
Although the first few games in the series were very close, Odense’s offensive firepower led by Canadian Rob Ricci proved too strong. The Blue Fox went down 2-0 in the series before they burst out with a lopsided 8-1 victory. The victory could have meant a turning point, but in a goaltending battle in the fourth game, Latvian goalie Ervins Mustukovs kept his team in the series thanks to a 2-1 victory.
Trailing 3-1, Herning had to outsmart their opponents in order to stay alive. Totally in line with nature, Bjorkstrand and his foxes found a way to escape from caught.
By solidifying its defence and playing a disciplined game, Herning ensured their opponents could not exploit their biggest guns. A big help in that plan came via Slovak netminder Lubos Pisar. The 31-year-old was instrumental in Herning’s playoff run last season and performed near perfection again this year.
In the games that followed, Pisar kept his net clean with three consecutive shut outs stopping 85 shots through the final three games that were won 2-0, 3-0 and 4-0 respectively. He finished the playoffs with astonishing numbers. He held a save percentage of nearly 96% and only allowed 1.24 goals per game throughout 17 playoff encounters.
The magnificent comeback means Herning retains the Danish league title, its 16th.
For Bjorkstrand it was a much needed success after he could not avoid relegation with the Danish U20 national team at the recent IIHF World Junior Championship. On that team he coached his two sons Oliver and Patrick. Whereas the two juniors could not deliver enough in the national team jersey, they were of importance for Herning.
Oliver racked up three points in ten games before falling victim to an injury. His brother Patrick took over the reign with a pair of goals and an assist in the decisive seventh game and 11 points in the whole post season.
Odense defenceman Mads Schaarup was full of praise for his opponents: “Hats off to them coming back from 3-1. They never gave up and we weren’t able to take control of the game.”
Not far away Bjørn Østergaard was all smiles. The 24-year-old announced his retirement suffering from post-concussion syndromes but can take pride of saying goodbye to the game with a golden helmet on his head.
“It was strange to think of this being my last game,” the forward said afterwards while celebrating with his parents. “Last week my sister, Henriette, won gold at the Women’s World Championship [Division I Group B] and now this. It’s been huge.”
For first-year Herning player Mitch Ganzak it was also a special season. The American defenceman was full of praise for coach Bjorkstrand.
Ganzak: “I’ve been playing hockey for 25 years, but this is the first coach I’ve really learned new things from this season. Todd’s an intense coach who demands perfection to the tiniest details from his players even when leading 4-0 in game seven.”
When reading the quote, coach Bjorkstrand will probably not be able to suppress a smile, but almost certainly his face will quickly look serious again as the 2012-13 season is coming. It will be an opportunity to win the triple with Herning. Opportunities which are not meant to be passed up on. Surely not when you have a résumé to show like Todd Bjorkstrand’s.