ZURICH – “I don’t know the last time I had 51 saves in a game," said Finnish ZSC Lions goalie Ari Sulander after the last Champions Hockey League game. “Probably it was in a derby against Kloten in my first season in Zurich.” That was 1998-1999, when he left his Jokerit Helsinki for Zurich.
Sulander will celebrate his 40th birthday one day before the second semi-final game in his native region Helsinki where the ZSC Lions Zurich play the Espoo Blues on January 7. He hopes to get his biggest present then.
His club is already planning for the post-Sulo era. After so many years as the number one in the Lions’ net, he agreed to share time with young prospect, Lukas Flüeler. The 20-year-old has had 44 percent of the ice time in the domestic league games. But on the international stage, the ZSC Lions only trust Sulander, who will also be in net against Espoo on Wednesday.
“It’s special for me to play against a Finnish club, I’ve always hoped that I could get this chance before my career ends,” says Sulander. Thanks to his excellent performance, the Zurich club celebrated the first-ever win in European club competition of a Swiss against a Czech club. Now, 'Sulo' hopes to break another curse as Swiss teams have been beaten by Finnish in the last nine games. Kloten won the last game in the 1995-1996 European Cup, 3-2, against TPS Turku. Overall, the Finns have a 12W-1T-2L advantage.
The only exception is a game against a second-tier team, Jukurit Mikkeli, when the ZSC Lions won the 2002 Continental Cup, also with Sulander in the net. “But the Champions Hockey League is something much bigger and it’s unbelievable which teams we’ve beaten there so far," he says. Sulander follows the Finnish league and speaks about an interesting clash. “They’re very young, talented and they’ll be a very strong opponent.”
The ZSC Lions will have to do without defenceman Beat Forster. His groin injury is still keeping him out. “I’ll be sidelined indefinitely and I don’t know when I can play,” Forster said. Due to the lack in the back, Patrick Geering may stay with the team for a few more days and then join the U20 national team after Wednesday. Forward Alexei Krutov can also play after recovering from the flu, but centre Oliver Kamber is still out of the lineup.
The Espoo Blues are without several players including Ben Eaves, Santeri Heiskanen, Miika Huczkowski, Mikael Kurki, Stefan Öhman and Jari Tolsa.
On the Finnish side, Austrian netminder Bernd Brückler will have a comeback in the German-speaking region, but it doesn't make a difference to the netminder. “It’s special in general to play against international top teams no matter where they are from. And my home town Graz is still too far away for my family and friends to come over on a weekday,” Brückler said.
The Austrian, who’s in his fourth season in Espoo, is leading the CHL goalie stats with a 96.25 save percentage. “I didn’t know that until someone told me but the most important thing is that we’re in the semi-finals. We’re getting stronger year by year and have a very good junior organization. Many young players get much ice time and are from Espoo,” Brückler says.
The Austrian doesn’t know much about his future. His contract expires after this season but the future will be known quickly if he plays well, he says. The new import rules in Finland that have no limits for European Union players might work to his favour. “I don’t think it will change much. Maybe we’ll have more Swedes, same as there are many Finns playing in Sweden. Finland has enough young talents and I don’t think that they’ll lose their spots.”
But for now, same as Sulander, he’ll be focused on the clash between two teams with two goalkeepers who are at the top of their games.