Long way to the top

Every year, stars are born. Many of them against some long odds.

22.02.2012
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HSBC Arena Buffalo New Yord USA

Finnish goalkeeper Joni Ortio had his first game with the men's national team after returning to Finland on loan. Photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images

STOCKHOLM – A few years ago, a 24-year-old goaltender named Jonas Gustavsson broke the Elitserien shutout record in his first full season, having played mostly in Swedish second and third divisions before then. He finished the season with a bronze medal around his neck as he returned from the 2009 IIHF World Championship in Berne, Switzerland, and then signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs as a free agent.

He wasn't the first great goaltender to emerge from out of nowhere, and he likely won't be the last. Just last Sunday, after the final game of the Oddset Hockey Games between Finland and Sweden in Stockholm, the teams stood on the blueline waiting for the best players of both teams to get their prizes at center ice. As it happened, both stars chosen were goaltenders.

Aside from being chosen as Sweden's player of the game, Sweden’s Viktor Fasth was voted into the tournament All-Star team, and also elected Best Goalie of the tournament. Opposite Fasth, Finland goaltender Joni Ortio's recognition was a great cap to a great performance, in what was actually the young man's first-ever game with the men’s national team.

Both selections were well-deserved, as the two goalies made a combined 64 saves in the game, and took turns in keeping their teams in the game when the other team took over the momentum.

Predicting those two getting the awards would have been easy even before the game, but not many people could done the same two years ago, when Fasth was playing in the Hockeyallsvenskan, division two hockey in Sweden, and Ortio, now 20, mostly with the TPS Turku junior team. Before his first national team game, Ortio had played just 20 games in the Finnish SM-liiga, spread over three seasons, the bulk of them came last season when he played 15 games for TPS Turku, and posted a 3.12 goals against average.

That season, 2009-10, his counterpart Fasth led all goalies in the Swedish second division in save percentage, with 93.04 in 23 games, but struggled in the qualification series, in which his goals against average was 3.13. However, his play had made an impression on AIK Stockholm’s brass and he signed with the club at the same time that it got promoted to the Elitserien.

And the rest is history. Fasth seized his chance and posted the league’s third-best save percentage in the regular season, while in the playoffs he held the league-best save percentage as he led AIK to the semi-final. He got invited to the national team’s World Championship camp, but only after Daniel Larsson and Stefan Liv, the two goalies head coach Pär Mårts had used in all three Euro Hockey Tour tournaments, had declined invitation.

And even after he made that team, he was still behind Erik Ersberg, after Jhonas Enroth had been sent to Portland to play in the AHL playoffs, and Nashville advanced to the second round in the NHL, keeping Anders Lindbäck on the other side of the Atlantic.

But again Fasth made the most of his opportunities. Two weeks and three shutouts later, Fasth was voted Best Goalkeeper of the 2011 World Championship.

Ortio, by the way, had played just two games with TPS this season, having been sent back to Finland from the Abbotsford Heat, the Calgary Flames’ farm team, in January. He played nine games in the AHL, and recorded a 2.94 goals against average and a 89.0 save percentage to go with it. In Finland, he’d only had two games under his belt – one shutout – when he got the call to join the national team in Stockholm.

He flew to Stockholm the night before the game when it became apparent that Ari Ahonen wouldn’t recover from the illness that had sidelined him, and that Niko Hovinen didn’t feel all too well, either. Twenty hours later, Ortio was the hottest goalie in Finland.

While Fasth was smiling to the cameras and shaking hands with Ortio, his AIK teammate Robert Rosén was standing on the blueline. He had been Fasth’s teammate on the Växjö team in Allsvenskan, too, and had had a great season 2009-10 himself, finishing third in the scoring race with 57 points in 52 games. He signed with MODO Örnsköldsvik and scored 23 points, while seeing limited ice time. He scored ten of his 11 goals on the power play, and played only ten minutes per game.

This season, he rejoined Fasth, now in Stockholm, and with more responsibility, and with great chemistry with Richard Gynge – who was sixth in Hockeyallsvenskan scoring in 2010 – Rosén, 24, now has 52 points in 49 games. He leads the Elitserien in scoring.

Every season several new players have their breakthrough years. Some of them, like Fasth, mature, or get their chances later, or both, like Sweden’s Carl Söderberg, a former child prodigy who made his Tre Kronor comeback this season (and was also on the Oddset Hockey Games team), or Finland’s Jarno Koskiranta, who played his first SM-liiga season in 2009-10, but is now in that large pool of players that Jukka Jalonen looks to when picking his Euro Hockey Tour teams.

Of the top-4 goalies in the Elitserien this season, three – Fasth (29), Joacim Eriksson (21), and David Rautio (26) – played in Hockeyallsvenskan in 2010. The fourth, and the current league leader in save percentage, Frölunda’s Fredrik Andersen (22), played in the Danish league.

It’s not easy to become an overnight sensation. It takes years of hard work. And some luck.

Notebook:
  • Hockey is the “most respected” sport in Finland, according to a recent survey that measures people’s impressions on the level of competition, professionalism, and international competition in different sports. Also, 71 percent of the 3,500 people surveyed said that they follow hockey at least every once in a while.
  • Djurgården’s Daniel Tjärnqvist logs most ice time per game in Elitserien, 26:17. However, Frölunda’s Christian Bäckman has played most minutes of all players this season, 19 hours, and 48 seconds, or 23:46 per game.
  • Robert Rosén is the leading scorer with 52 points in 49 games, and his linemate Richard Gynge leads the league in goal scoring, with 22 in 49 games, followed by Rosén and Brynäs’s Jakob Silfverberg (20).
  • Frölunda’s Frederik Andersen dominates the goaltending statistics. His save percentage, 94.32, is the best in Elitserien, as is his 1.59 goals against average. He's also recorded most wins (18) and most shutouts (8).

RISTO PAKARINEN


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