JYVÄSKYLÄ, Finland – Eric Perrin scored the gold medal winning goal in game 5 of the SM-liiga final series, giving JYP Jyväskylä its second title in four years. That JYP would win it all was expected, or not, depending on your time perspective.
In September, most experts held the two Helsinki teams, HIFK and Jokerit, and JYP as the biggest favourites to win the Finnish championship. All three struggled during the season, but all three managed to salvage their season in some way.
In November, HIFK was ninth in the standings, albeit with a few games in hand, and just four points out of sixth place, but still not at all where the team was expected to be. By the end of the regular season they had climbed to third, tied with the Pelicans Lahti in the second spot.
Jokerit, in turn, finished sixth, ten points behind HIFK, but can look back at the season and be reasonably happy, having first beaten HIFK in four straight games in the quarter-finals, and then winning the bronze medal.
But it was JYP that seemed to be in most trouble early on, firing head coach Risto Dufva just two games into the season, and promoting assistant coach Jyrki Aho to the role of the bench boss. The 37-year-old former minor league defenceman had no previous head coaching experience, and with the exception of the 2006-07 season when he was assistant coach in Mannheim’s U20 team, had only been assistant to Dufva in his coaching career which spanned the seven previous seasons.
JYP had lost their two first games, but with the new coach, they won their third on overtime. Only to lose their next four games. When October came, the team had a 2-6 record.
In November, the club sold forward Antti Pihlström, a member of last year’s World Championship gold medal team, to Salavat Yulayev Ufa.
“We’ve invested more money in this year’s team than we had budgeted so the financial argument for the move is strong,” said CEO Jukka Seppänen.
“And we think we’ll survive losing Pihlström on the ice as well,” he added.
In early December, JYP had climbed to eighth in the standings, and when the regular season came to an end in March, the team was fourth, just three points from second place. The team entered the playoffs with a four-game winning streak boosting their confidence.
In the post-season, the team swept Ässät Pori in the first round, downed Jokerit in five games - winning three of the games on OT - before beating the Pelicans in five games, the last two wins after overtime.
“We went through some adversity and we managed to create a new identity for this team. The coaching staff trusted the players and we got a little more freedom to try different things on the ice,” says Eric Perrin, who finished third in league scoring in the regular season, and fourth in the playoffs.
He also scored the gold medal winning goal, beating Pelicans’ 17-year-old backup goaltender Janne Juvonen with a wrist shot from the slot 6:58 into the first OT, clinching JYP’s 2-1 win in Game 5 of the final series.
JYP’s Jani Tuppurainen got the Jari Kurri award as the playoffs MVP. He had seven goals and 15 points in 14 games, finishing second in post-season scoring, behind Pelicans’ Ryan Lasch, who scored 5+11=16 points in 17 games.
JYP’s first line with Perrin, Tuppurainen and Harri Pesonen scored the game-winning goal in three of the games in the final series.
“This has been the best season of my career,” said the 25-year-old forward.
The season was a trial by fire for many on the team. Last season, goaltender Riku Helenius played 18 games in Södertälje in the Swedish Elitserien, posted a 88.41 save percentage, and saw his team get relegated to division one at the end of the season.
This year, he led the league in goals against average with 1.64, was second in the league with his 93.63 save percentage in the regular season, and posted seven shutouts, most in the league. In the post-season, his save percentage (of goaltenders that played more than 5 games) was the best in the SM-liiga, 94.7.
And then there was the head coach, who still hasn’t coached a full season in the SM-liiga.
“Not only was Jyrki a rookie head coach, it was the first season for the rest of the coaching staff as well. They did a fantastic job,” says team captain Juha-Pekka Hytönen.