STOCKHOLM – A little less than six months ago, on April 24, HV71 players skated around the Hovet Arena ice with the modern-day Swedish classic, the golden helmets, on their heads. They had just beaten Djurgården Stockholm in Game 6 of the Elitserien final with Teemu Laine’s OT goal just four minutes into the extra frame.
Both HV71 and Djurgården were the hottest pre-season candidates to go to the final this season as well. Both clubs kept their core group of players, and whatever losses to the roster they suffered, they plugged the holes. Stefan Liv became Daniel Larsson and David Petrasek Juuso Hietanen in HV71, while Marcus Nilson became Daniel Widing and Jacob Josefsson Nils Ekman in Stockholm.
If anything, the teams looked better than six months ago. They also started the regular season with a bang, in a final series rematch in Stockholm. Djurgården won the game 3-2, convincing everybody of its strength.
Seven games later, though, HV71 was tenth and Djurgården 11th, in a 12-team league. One game later, wins by both HV71 and Djurgården put them to eighth and ninth, still disappointing.
HV71 has just one regulation time win this season, over Skellefteå AIK, but its 1-4-4 record (with two OT wins and two shootout wins) gives it 11 points. Djurgården, on the other hand, has gone 3-6-2 (with the ties being two shootout losses) for 11 points. Last season’s runners-up have also lost both their derbies, first to AIK, 5-2, then to Södertälje, 3-1.
And while ten games is not even fifth of the season, the fans have some cause for concern. A good start is important, because for one reason or another, climbing up from the basement has proved to be a difficult task in the past.
In 2006, the teams that had were in the five last spots in the standings after ten games, were also the five last teams in the final standings, with the three last teams even occupying the identical spots. In 2008, Brynäs was dead last after ten games, and dead last after 55 games. In fact, the four last-place teams already found their places in the basement after ten games. Last year, the five last-place teams after ten games only swapped places with each other so that Modo and Timrå clawed their way up out of the relegation series.
Turning it around mid-season is difficult. When expectations aren’t met, new players get signed and coaches get fired when the club management - often desperately - tries to get the team going, sometimes creating a bigger mess.
There’s hope, though. In 2007, HV71 had another slow start in the Elitserien. It had just two wins and nine points in ten games but it finished the season with 23 wins in 45 games, and second in the standings. Regular season winner, Färjestad, was eighth after ten games, with four wins.
Maybe digging their way out of the hole took too much energy because neither one made it past the semi-finals that year.
Energy levels may explain the sluggish starts of the Swedish finalists this year. There have been speculations about the European Trophy draining the team's energy that it would have needed in the regular season games. And maybe there is something to it.
Of the current top seven teams in the Elitserien, only Linköping played in the European Trophy, and never made it past the opening round whereas HV71 went all the way to the final, which it lost to Eisbären Berlin. The German powerhouse, in turn, is currently seventh in the DEL.
In Finland, one European Trophy team, HIFK, tops the standings, but the three that made it to the final round? TPS is dead last. Kärpät, a team that has the highest-paid roster, and a pre-season favourite to win the title is 12th, after 11 games. Jokerit is sixth.
Tappara, a club that saw its head coach resign just ten days before the regular season start, is currently fifth in the SM-liiga standings. Tappara forward Timo Koskela was quoted as saying that he was happy that they didn’t make it to the final round in the European Trophy.
“It was better for us to be at home and have an off weekend than to be in Austria and play. We got off to a good start because we were fresh,” he said.
Coincidence? Maybe. But whatever the reason for the teams’ slow starts is, they’d better start winning in a hurry if they want to stay in the race. Three points in the fall is worth the same as three points in the spring.
- The Elitserien CEO Peter Gudmudsson is furious about media reports that the Los Angeles Kings want to loan defenceman Johan Fransson to SKA Petersburg in the KHL. The Swede didn’t crack the NHL lineup, and instead of reporting to the AHL affiliate, the Manchester Monarchs, it was reportedly arranged that he will go to Russia. The problem is, Fransson signed a five-year contract with Luleå. According to Gudmundsson, if the player is sent back overseas, his Swedish contract should be honoured.
- Former SM-liiga MVP and a Team Finland regular, Timo Pärssinen, has bounced back from the injury problems that plagued him in recent seasons. Injury-free, the feisty forward leads the Elitserien in scoring with five goals and 10 points in nine games. There are four Finns in the Top 10 in league scoring: Skellefteå AIK’s Mikko Lehtonen has 6+3=9 points, Jukka Voutilainen 3+6=9, and veteran defenseman Janne Niinimaa 1+8=9 points, in nine games.
- Another Finn making a big comeback is Linköping’s goaltender Fredrik Norrena, who leads the league in all goaltending categories: save percentage (94.12), goals against (1.36), and shutouts (2).