Scripts are written for Hollywood blockbusters all the time, but even many of the best couldn’t capture the drama experienced in this spring’s Alps Hockey League championship series!
Asiago Hockey was there to challenge Ritten Sport, the defending champion of the cross-border league that in February also won the Italian championship. But this time Asiago came out from Ritten’s shadow.
Concluding just its second season ever, this year’s AlpsHL final was everything you’d want to see when a league’s clearly two best teams meet up for a best-of-seven battle. In this case, it was the Ritten facing off against Asiago, meaning it was an all-Italian dual for the second straight season, once again seeing the two teams go the distance in order for a champion to be anointed.
The league included 17 teams including eight of the best Italian teams (only Bolzano plays at a higher level in the EBEL), Slovenia’s best club teams Acroni Jesenice and Olimpija Ljubljana and seven second-tier teams from Austria.
As things go when two strong and evenly matched teams chip at each other game after game, it took until minute 56:38 of Game 7 before 22-year old left wing Davide Consi managed to decide things once and for all in Asiago’s favour, putting the icing on the cake with the seventh goal of a 7-5 victory. It was clearly a decisive point of elation, and one of utter relief just a few minutes later when Asiago’s players stormed the ice in a championship series that required everything the players had to give.
With that, Asiago is now the Alps Hockey League’s 2017/18 champion, one season after losing the final to Ritten’s “Buam” (boys in the local German dialect in South Tyrol) just this time last spring. But getting to this victory was a task of gargantuan proportion, offering fans of both teams a rollercoaster ride of frills usually only seen on the silver screen.
Things started with a convincing 3-0 victory for Asiago, in which the Tom Barrasso-coached team had achieved what became the final score by the game’s 35th minute, with two goals coming from the aforementioned Conci, his first two points of the playoffs after having collected 10 in the course of the regular season. Nonetheless, Ritten bounced back at home in Game 2, giving Asiago its first loss of the playoffs, deciding things 3-2 on the strength of an Oscar Ahlstrom power play goal in the 4th minute of overtime.
Games 3 and 4 would lead to the same results, namely a tied-up series. Yet they told different stories as Asiago won convincingly 5-1 at home, with Anthony Bardaro being the key player in collecting a goal and two assists, looking like they’d sent Ritten a message that the Game 2 victory was little more than luck. Ritten responded in kind by shutting out Asiago 2-0 in the ensuing match, with the game winner first coming in the 45th minute, once again via an Oscar Ahlstrom tally.
As if that wasn’t enough, the tight going continued in Game 5, as Asiago slipped by at home with a 2-1 victory, with the tie-breaking game winner coming from Marco Rosa in the 42nd minute. Asiago was close to ending things in Game 6 on the road when it headed into the third period with a 2-1 lead on the strength of a Bardaro goal and assist, but Ritten turned things around when Victor Ahlstrom scored in the 45th minute and then had an assist on Andreas Lutz’ game winner in the 51st minute.
This set up things for what looked like it’d be a tight Game 7, which turned into something magical, but entirely different!
Barrasso’s team exploded onto the scene, scoring in the 2nd and 12th minutes of the game before Ritten got on the board 19 seconds later to cut the lead to 2-1. Another goal in the 18th minute allowed Asiago to end the first period with a 3-1 lead, the kind of score that might have settled prior matches.
Then a second period came along like none yet seen in the finals.
Six goals were scored by six different players, three per team, sending the game back and forth. Each team managed a power-play goal along the way. Asiago ended the period with a 6-4 lead and not only had Conci already collected three assists in the game, but his linemate Michele Stevan had two goals and an assist; a healthy contribution from a 25-year-old player who had just 14 points in the regular season.
The drama continued in the third as Ritten did all it could to even things up and looked like it may be able to do just that when Thomas Spinell, Ritten’s topscorer in the playoffs, scored his second of the night in the 57th minute. It proved too little, too late, as Asiago added its seventh goal just 10 seconds later and this went on to end any dreams Ritten had of defending its title.
Making the championship all that more impressive was the fact that, through the first six games, each team won their home game and the winner of each game managed to pot the game’s first goal. It also ended up being the first best-of-seven game series in league history to go the distance.
For Ritten’s “Buam”, or “fellas” if you will, the loss robbed last season’s champs of a wonderful ending to a season that saw them finish second in the 40-game preliminary phase, finishing with a 32-8 record. The team then moved swiftly through the AlpsHL playoffs defeating the upstart Red Bull Juniors four games to one and then the 3rd overall Jesenice three games to one, holding the Slovenes to just seven goals against. Jesenice had featured the league’s most potent offence in the regular season.
Still, champion Asiago’s path to the finals was even more impressive! After having made a bit of a surprise visit to the finals last spring, the team dominated league standings pretty much right from day one of the season. It gathered 97 points in finishing with a 36-4 overall record, then marched through the first two rounds of the playoffs as if it were practically given a bye, defeating Sterzing in four games in the first round and then Pustertal in three straight games in round 2. Nonetheless, it allowed 19 goals against in those seven games, allowing three or more on four occasions.
Despite the wild Game 7, Asiago went on to change things in the defensive department in this repeat series for the ages, not allowing Ritten to score more than 3 goals in any one game and holding the opponent to one or fewer on three occasions. Last season’s goalie of the year Frederic Cloutier played all 14 games for Asiago and pitched a 2.40 goals against average and a 92.8 save percentage, second only to Jesenice’s Clarke Saunders in the playoffs, despite having allowed the five goals against in Game 7.
For Asiago, the championship also came on the back of the contributions of four forwards who averaged over a point per game, namely Bardaro, Rosa, Giulio Scandella, and Anthony Nigro, the first three leading all playoff scorers. Bardaro finished first overall in playoff scoring with six goals, 23 points, and a +14 rating.
Veni vidi vici
This season’s rising star in the league, and a player who became heavily scouted by scouts from other leagues, was a Canadian with an Italian name, Anthony Bardaro. A native of British Columbia, the 25-year-old Bardaro spent his first season in Europe after four seasons of Canadian college play at the University of British Columbia, which followed four seasons of WHL play split between Spokane and Prince Albert.
Suiting up for Asiago, he took the league by storm finishing the regular season with 31 goals, 56 points, and a +20 rating in just 39 games, which led to his being voted the league’s MVP by ice hockey journalists. It wasn’t only his stats that stood out, but his manner of being in the thick of things when it mattered most just about the entire season, including in the playoffs, where he went on to collect 23 points and a +14 rating in 14 total games.
The achievement was quite an impressive one when you consider that the league featured a number of names well-known to the international ice hockey community including Yan Stastny, Giulio Scandella, Marco Rosa, Zach Torquato, Armin Hofer, and Robert Kristan, to name a few.
For Ritten Sport, the AlpsHL final was its second of the winter. On 11th February it had decided Italy’s internal championship by convincingly beating the Pustertal Wolves, who had eliminated Asiago in the semi-final, by a 6-1 score. The game featured a definitive Finnish touch as both Ritten and Pustertal’s coaches hail from the country of a thousand lakes, namely Riku-Petteri Lehtonen and Petri Mattila, whose paths were all but crossing for the first time.
Oscar Ahlstrom, playing on a line with his twin brother Victor, opened the scoring already after 27 seconds and the team never looked back, as Pustertal didn’t even manage to break the shutout until four seconds before the game concluded. Italian-born forward Markus Spinell, who totaled 13 goals the entire season, pumped in two on the day. For Ritten, which finished second to Asiago in the AlpsHL’s final standings, this victory to decide the national championship was a major accomplishment in and of itself.
The internal Italian championship is nonetheless not the only one to feature AlpsHL participants. The two league contestants from Slovenia are currently involved in a Best-of-Five series to decide Slovenia’s national champion. Acroni Jesenice and Olimpija Ljubljana, which finished third (88 points) and sixth (72 points) in the AlpsHL respectively, played a Slovenian final series for the national title that was won by Acroni.
Jesenice had already defeated Olimpija four games to nil to kick off the first round of the Alps Hockey League playoffs and then fell to Ritten three games to one in the second round, and is rightfully considered the favourite in this series. Still, Olimpija’s Andrej Hebar, who had 52 points and +30 rating in 44 total games this season, is the top scorer of either team and should be looking for vengeance after the convincing first round playoff loss.
Interestingly, the top-scoring Slovenian-born player in the AlpsH this season was Sterzing’s Jure Sotlar, a 24-year old 5’8” forward who had 24 goals, 62 points, and a +23 rating in 45 total games. He had spent last season playing for Jesenice after having spent his entire career before that playing for the Olimpija Ljubljana program.
The AlpsHL took a step forward this season, seeing the number of club teams from Austria, Italy, and Slovenia that are not competing in EBEL, the top Austrian-based league, increase to 17. With that growth, the league was able to establish a 40-game regular season (as opposed to 30 last season) before heading straight into the Best-of-Seven playoffs for the first round.
The teams were very different from Feldkirch averaging over 1,500 fans as the most-attended team in the league to B-selections of some of the EBEL teams. The attendance figures improved in the playoffs, where both Feldkirch and Jesenice averaged more than 2,000 attendants, and Asiago, Pustertal, and Olimpija each saw numbers exceeding 1,000 attendants.
The season now closes for one of the youngest league’s in Europe and did so in as fine a fashion as possible. Now, like so many other leagues out there, it’ll spend the summer working on its product and setting up things for an even better future.