New dynasty vs old guard

Skellefteå AIK repeats, sweeps Färjestad

25.04.2014
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The Skellefteå players and staff celebrate the second Swedish title in a row. Photo: SAIK

SKELLEFTEÅ, Sweden – For all the people advocating for a traditional European series system, with promotions to and relegations from the different divisions, Skellefteå AIK is the exhibit A. After fifteen years outside the top division, SAIK fought its way back to the Elitserien in 2006, and has since then built an organization that defines the word “dynasty”.

SAIK played in its fourth straight Swedish final, and having lost the first two to Färjestad and Brynäs, it now took its second straight Swedish title, and the third in the club’s history.

Last season, Skellefteå swept Northern Sweden rival Luleå in the final and this year, the domination was total, when SAIK swept Färjestad in the final, 4-0, with a 20-3 goal difference.

It has lost just three playoff games in the last two seasons, and just one in regulation time.

It may not be a surprise that for the second straight year, the winner of the Golden Helmet, the league MVP as voted by the players, was also a Skellefteå player. Last season it was Bud Holloway, this season, it was Joakim Lindström who finished second in the regular season scoring race, and was tied for first in the playoffs.

Team captain Jimmie Ericsson - the only SHL player on Sweden’s Olympic team in Sochi - is nominated for the Golden Puck for the second consecutive year. Only three players have won the prize awarded to the “best player in the SHL and the Swedish national team” twice.

“I’m incredibly proud to be the captain of this team. I’ve been here for eleven years, and I feel that we’ve taken steps forward every single year,” Ericsson told Norran newspaper.

“Of course I’m proud of [the Golden Helmet] but this team is not just one player. Everybody has done a great job, and nobody’s bigger than the team,” added Lindström.

Skellefteå’s fantastic run has inspired the Swedish media to come up with new ways to describe the team, prompting some reporters to claim that SAIK would beat several NHL teams with their fast-paced, puck-moving possession game.

Next season, Skellefteå will get a chance to show the rest of Europe what it can do as it qualified for the Champions Hockey League. With two Swedish titles in two years, the next challenge is to be the best in the continent.

That’s something the club management wasn’t thinking about in 2005 when they were struggling to get back to the top division, or even less in 1997 when the club was on the brink of a bankruptcy, and was two tiers below the Swedish Elite League.

This year, the stars were aligned perfectly for Skellefteå to repeat. In the first round, the team played against HV71, a team that finished tenth in the 12-team league, and qualified into playoffs by beating seventh-placed Leksand in the play-in round.

Skellefteå’s goal difference in the regular season was plus-58, HV71’s minus-36, a difference of almost a hundred goals, in a 55-game regular season. As a result, Skellefteå had almost twice as many regulation time wins (32-17) as HV71.

In the semi-final, Skellefteå beat Linköping, another team that had got to the playoffs via the play-in stage. Linköping, regular-season ninth-place team beat MODO in the play-in, and then sent regular season runner-up Frölunda packing in seven games.

And in the final, it was up to the perennial Swedish league semi-finalist, Färjestad, who was trying to shake the reigning champions.

If Skellefteå has been the rising star in the last few years, Färjestad is the fixed star of the league. This season’s final was the ninth since 2001 for the club. The club led by former Team Sweden star Håkan Loob has won four of those finals, and nine championships in total. It has also made it to the semifinal 13 time sin the least 14 seasons and leads the all-time standings of the league.

This year was turbulent for Färjestad and Loob with Jörgen Jönsson, the director of hockey operations, leaving his post in October, and Loob taking over the job himself, and then firing assistant coach Andreas Johansson in December. Meanwhile, the team climbed from the bottom of the standings to fifth, and lost home-ice advantage in the playoffs by goal differential.

But this year, no team could challenge Skellefteå AIK. The second northernmost SHL team beat Gothenburg’s Frölunda in their first game of the regular season, 3-2, and then went on to win 36 more games. It was left without points in just 12 of the 55 regular season games.

Counting the playoffs, the team’s record for the season was 48 wins, 21 losses.

“We really care about each other. This is a manifestation of fair play on the ice and off it, this is a manifestation of solidarity. We’ve felt the support of so many people, hockey is huge Skellefteå,” assistant coach Bert Robertson told Aftonbladet.

The ten thousand people celebrating their heroes the next day was a manifestation of that.

RISTO PAKARINEN

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