STOCKHOLM – The fans were opposed to the move back to the bigger Globe arena, citing the better atmosphere in Hovet as the reason. The fans didn’t like Djurgården’s idea of handing out red T-shirts to people so that they would make up a formidable Red Sea in the stands, because the fans wanted to have their own ideas. The fans didn’t like the fact that Djurgården wanted to play in red sweaters in the first place, because “to them, Djurgården is always blue”.
But as long as the team’s winning, the fans don’t care.
And the team is winning. Djurgården finished second in the regular season standings, then finished Brynäs off in the quarterfinals, 4-1, in the best-of-seven series, and have been waiting for the other side of the bracket to be finished with their quarterfinals. On Tuesday, Linköping beat Frölunda in the Game 7 of their quarterfinal, advancing to the semifinal against Djurgården.
Djurgården, the Pride of Stockholm, is also the club with most Swedish titles, 16, but its last championship is nine years old. Since the back-to-back titles in 2001 and 2000, the team has missed the playoffs three times, and gone to the semifinal twice – before this season.
In fact, in 2006 and 2007, there was concern in Sweden about hockey’s popularity in the country if Djurgården, the last Stockholm team in Elitserien, would also get demoted to Allsvenskan.
But, things happen fast in hockey. Djurgården has gone from missing the playoffs in three of the last four years to a young and dynamic team that could even go all the way. The four semi-final teams were also the top-four teams in the regular season, and Djurgården did finish second.
Today, as in 2001, Djurgården has Hardy Nilsson behind the bench. Ten years ago, Nilsson had his team play his famous - or infamous - torpedo hockey, where the traditional positions were reinvented along the lines of 1960s soccer so that there were two torpedoes, actively, aggressively forechecking forwards, two half backs, usually one defenceman, and maybe center, and a libero, a free-roaming balancing player.
As Sweden’s national team head coach, he once started a game with five former forwards.
“We won the game, because the guys were skilled enough to play a little different hockey,” Nilsson said in 2004.
He’s always believed in controlling the game, holding on to the puck, instead of a dump-and-chase style of game. Describing his torpedo hockey, he said:
“If we have the puck, how can the other team play a transition game? Sure, we may have to dump the puck to the corner from the blueline, but even then, we’re deep in their zone,” he said.
This time, Nilsson, also known as “Hard Hardy”, 62, who’s taken his teams to championships and finals in Germany, Austria, and Sweden, almost every year, had a new idea, based on the same principle.
His team, Djurgården, would play “long attacks”, they would get the puck to the offensive zone, and keep it there, they cycle the puck and they wear the opponents down. The players repeated the long attack mantra already in August when they won the Nordic Trophy final - which should have alerted the experts - and have been going strong ever since.
Nilsson has also had 14 forwards in the lineup, playing with three defensive pairings and five lines, to make sure his team has the energy to put the pressure on the opponent’s defencemen.
However, Nilsson is also the first to give credit to the players on the ice. Like goaltender Gustaf Wesslau, who leads the playoff goaltending stats with his 1.56 goals against average and 93.60 save percentage, or Marcus Nilson, the team’s leading scorer this season. Nilson scored 24 goals and 51 points in games, sixth in the league, and has four points in the five playoff games the team has played. That, too, leads the team.
“He really gets everybody to buy into what he’s saying,” defenceman Timmy Pettersson told Swedish Expressen.
“A lot of coaches talk a lot, and tell players to do things, but Hardy has a knack for pointing to things that really make you believe him. And he makes it all seem smart,” he adds.
Assistant coach Mikael Johansson is a Djurgården legend, and his sweater hangs from the rafters of Hovet. He also played on the 2000 and 2001 championship teams, with Hardy as his coach.
“He’s really straightforward about what he wants, and he gets everybody on the same page,” he says.
And that’s why, on April 7, Djurgården will play its fourth semi-final game in Globen in front of almost 14,000 fans, all dressed in red.
Because winning is the sweet thing that it makes the medicine go down.
- The regular season's four best teams all advanced to the semifinal. Djurgården (2) will play against Linköping (3), while HV71, the regular season winner, will take on Skellefteå AIK, the fourth-seeded team.
- Linköping’s Tony Mårtensson leads the playoff scoring race with nine points in seven games. His teammate, defenceman Magnus Johansson, is tied with Skellefteå’s Johan Forsberg for lead in post-season goal scoring, with six in seven game.
- In the relegation series, this season’s Elitserien teams Södertälje and Rögle hold on to the two Elitserien spots for next season as well after five games, the halfway point of the round-robin series. Södertälje is undefeated in five games, Rögle has ten points, a three-point lead over AIK Stockholm in the third place.
- Brynäs goaltender Jacob Markström, the Rookie of the Year, and the Goalie of the Year in the Elitserien, continues his season with Brynäs’s major junior team that is chasing the Swedish championship.
- Team Sweden head coach Bengt-Åke Gustafsson kicked off his first World Championship training camp this week. Among the players invited to the camp were Johan Harju and Linus Omark from the KHL’s Dynamo Moscow, Jonas Andersson from Dynamo Minsk and Michael Nylander from Jokerit Helsinki.