Can the Hawks be beat?

NHL teams undefeated vs. Europeans for 18 years

28.09.2009
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The Chicago Blackhawks and their captain Jonathan Toews are under pressure to keep the NHL record vs. European teams clean. Photo: Chicago Blackhawks

ZURICH – When HC Davos and the ZSC Lions Zurich play the Chicago Blackhawks, they don’t know what to expect, just that they will play against a 2009 Stanley Cup semi-finalist. But in the heads of the players there’s a dream, to be the first Swiss club team to beat an NHL team – and the first European club since 1991.

The NHL-Euro record might look balanced with 76 wins, 65 defeats and 11 ties in favour of the NHL. However, two big factors got against a European win this week:

  1. 58 of the 65 European victories were by Soviet teams – three by Czechoslovaks, three by Swedes and one by a Finnish team. The Soviets have a 58W-10T-40L record against NHL teams. This doesn’t mean that they had the stronger league – the NHL is the most-balanced league, while the Soviet league had just four different champions since the first NHL-Euro game in 1975. Consequently, the two by far most successful teams of the Soviet league – CSKA Moscow (26 wins vs. NHL teams) and Dynamo Moscow (12 wins) – played most games against the NHL contenders and were most successful.
  2. Times have changed since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The top players left Moscow to play in the NHL and the Russian league is not ruled by the army or the KGB teams anymore but by financial competitiveness. There are several teams that can afford a high-calibre team and to contend for the KHL title. But with a larger group of European top teams in the East and the West, no one has dominated most recently, which also lowers the chance of a European team to be strong enough to beat an NHL opponent.

The last European wins were during a 21-game-tour of three Soviet clubs through North America in December 1990 and January 1991. The Soviets had a 12W-3T-6L record. The last five games were won by the Soviets. Dynamo Moscow and the Quebec Nordiques said adieu to the long history of NHL vs. Soviets clashes on January 15, 1991, with Dynamo winning 4-1.

Since that game, several teams tried to end the curse. Austrians, Finns, Germans, Russians, Slovaks, Swedes, Swiss. But the NHL teams hold a 16-0 record with 80-32 goals in those NHL-Euro games of the post-Soviet era.

Some of the games were close. In 2007, the Los Angeles Kings beat Salzburg (Austria) 7-6 and Färjestad (Sweden) 4-3 to win a tournament in Salzburg prior to the NHL Premiere in London. And last year, Russia’s powerhouse Metallurg Magnitogorsk was close to beating the New York Rangers in the Victoria Cup. The Russians led 3-0 midway through the game and late into the third period, the score of the thrilling game was 3-3 when Metallurg defenceman Vladimir Malenkikh lost the puck to Ryan Callahan with a bad pass. Callahan scored the game-winning goal on a breakaway with 20 seconds remaining.

Now, the next round is on. Davos and Zurich in Switzerland, Tappara Tampere and Jokerit Helsinki in Finland, and Linköping and Färjestad Karlstad in Sweden will play against NHL teams prior to the NHL Premiere in Helsinki and Stockholm.

The most prestigious game will be played on Tuesday. The Victoria Cup is the first cross-Atlantic trophy recognized both the IIHF and the NHL. The path to identify the European challenger for the Chicago Blackhawks was tough and the name of the team was not without surprise.

When ZSC entered the inaugural Champions Hockey League against Linköpings HC and Slavia Prague as their opponents in the group stage, they were at most seen as the second-place team. But the Lions began their campaign with a 7-2 win at Swedish top team Linköping. After a 5-4 shootout loss at home against Slavia Prague in their second game, the Lions remained undefeated in the following games against those two opponents, against Finland’s Espoo Blues in the semi-final, and against the Russian odds-on favourite Metallurg Magnitogorsk in the home & away final.

The hard-fought first game in Magnitogorsk ended with a 2-2 tie while the Lions won the home game 5-0 on January 28, 2009. It was one of the biggest surprises in European club hockey, probably the biggest since Austria’s Feldkirch won the CHL forerunner European Hockey League in 1998 by beating Dynamo Moscow in the final. And it was the first time a Swiss team won a major European club competition.

Despite falling in the Swiss quarterfinals after the CHL triumph, the ZSC Lions showed that they can be a tough and smart opponent in world-class atmosphere. They enter the Victoria Cup stage in their home arena Hallenstadion with a 5-1 record in the Swiss league.

And one day before, the Swiss champion and current NLA leader with a 6-1 record, HC Davos, wants to use the opportunity to write Swiss and European history before the Lions could jump at the chance.

Even though the opponents might not know each other well, one thing is clear: the pressure is on the Chicago Blackhawks, the Detroit Red Wings, Florida Panthers and St. Louis Blues to demonstrate how strong their league is with the clear 16-0 record.

MARTIN MERK

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