The opponent was new, but Anyang Halla has been a familiar face to the Asia League playoff final. For the fourth consecutive time, the Korean powerhouse made it to the final and for the third straight year Anyang Halla ends up celebrating. This time, the team beat the Oji Eagles from Japan in four games.
With the title, Anyang Halla is the first team to win three titles in a row and extends its lead of Asia League championships to five.
It was not surprising to see the Korean giants end up in yet another Asia League final. However, few would have expected the Oji Eagles to be other finalist. The 2012 Asia League champions appeared in the final for the first time since 2014 and had to play qualification games to make it to the playoffs after a fifth-place regular season finish.
The Eagles were flying once post season arrived.
First they disposed themselves from the Nikko Ice Bucks before upsetting top-seeded Russian team PSK Sakhalin in five games.
Anyang Halla had an automatic entry to the semi-final and had a false start losing the first game of the series against Tohoku Free Blades before winning three straight to advance to the finals.
Starting the series in Japan, Anyang sent out a clear signal they were not willing to give up on the throne. A 5-3 and 5-2 victory send the team back to Korea in a euphoric mood for game 3.
The team of coach Patrik Martinec thought it was mission accomplished, leading 2-0 with ten minutes left to play, but were given a warning message not to take the Eagles lightly. Kotaro Yamada put Oji on the scoreboard before Canadian forward Stephan Veilleux equalized on the power play with eight minutes left to play.
The momentum had swung and the Eagles were not flying. Takafumi Yamashita earned Oji the lead with less than a minute left to play and he rubbed more salt into the wounds by adding an empty net goal 12 seconds later forcing a fourth game to be played in Korea.
In an even game that saw both teams exchange goals in the first period it Anyang’s offence and goaltender making the difference in the remaining periods. Korean national team players Sangwook Kim and Donku Lee scored second period goals and Matt Dalton stopped 32 Oji shots on net en route to a 3-1 victory and another Asia League title for Anyang.
Despite the Asia League title ending up in the same hands, the 2017/18 Asia League season was a memorable and different one.
For the first time since 2004 it was played without a team from China, which has now several teams in the Russian system instread.
Secondly, the season was shortened due to the Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang 2018 that includes the Korean men’s national team. No league games were played in January and February.
With Anyang Halla’s roster containing no less than 12 Korea national team players, it meant half the squad was recovering from the Olympic hangover whereas the non-national team players were not getting much in the way of match practice for close to three months.
Despite these challenges, Anyang Halla prevailed and concluded a historic year for Korean hockey. For the first time in history the country participated in the Olympic ice hockey and despite losing all four games, their tournament participation has been considered a huge success and a boom for hockey in Korea. And Korea is now both in national team and in club hockey the top Asian country having overtaking traditional Asian powerhouse Japan. That’s special when considering Korea counts just 171 registered senior male players, compared to nearly 8,000 in Japan.
Now that the season is over, the Korean national team will head to Denmark in May to compete at the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship.
Japan will be aiming to win promotion from Division I Group B in Kaunas, Lithuania between 22-28 April. The land of the rising sun will face Ukraine, Lithuania, Estonia, Croatia and Romania in its quest for gold.