PORI, Finland – Ässät is the new Finnish champion, after a 35-year absence from the throne. The team from Pori, on the west coast of Finland, beat Tappara Tampere 3-2 in Game 6 of the SM-liiga final, and ended their fantastic season by hoisting the Canada Bowl.
“This is not just our championship, it’s the whole city’s. This a huge thing for us. If there’s one city that needed a championship, it’s Pori,” head coach Karri Kivi told YLE.
Ässät goaltender Antti Raanta was elected playoffs most valuable player. Raanta, also the regular season MVP, played all 16 games, and posted an impressive 95.45 save percentage, and a 1.33 goals against average.
“I wanted to focus on my own game, and do what I had to do, and the team helped me tremendously. I didn’t have a lot of playoff experience so I didn’t feel a lot of pressure, either,” said Raanta.
Defenceman Jyri Marttinen scored the championship-winning goal in the third period when his wrist shot from the blueline, meant to be a dump into the zone, beat Juha Metsola in Tappara’s goal.
“The hockey gods were on our side. When we got the third goal, I knew we wouldn’t lose. This has been my dream since I was a kid, and I can imagine there being a finer team than ours,” said Marttinen.
In December, as European leagues took a break, Ässät was tenth in the standings, just three points ahead of TPS Turku. By the transfer deadline, as the playoff spot seemed to be slipping away, Ässät sold Stephen Dixon to Lokomotiv Yaroslavl.
Then something happened, and Ässät got hot. Since late January, the team went 14-0-1, and finished fourth in the standings. Counting the playoffs the Pori team has lost just nine of its 42 games in 2013.
Maybe the spark came already in late December, when the club management announced it had signed Pekka Virta – who had been fired from TPS Turku in October – to coach the team starting next season.
"We had our tough periods during the season, but we all worked together, and now that team spirit carried us all the way,” Marttinen said.
The team fought its way to the final convincingly, beating both KalPa Kuopio and JYP Jyväskylä in five games in the quarter-final and semi-final, respectively.
And they did it as a team. Despite missing Dixon, who finished on top of Ässät's regular season scoring even having missed the last 16 games, they found ways to score enough goals during their run to the playoffs, and in the post-season.
Eero Elo, who scored ten goals in 31 regular season games, got six in 16 playoff games. Daniel Brodin scored ten goals in 60 games in the regular season, but six in the post-season.
It’s not like Ässät hasn’t done anything right since 1978. The 1978 team was a dynasty in the making. With players like Veli-Pekka Ketola – the first Finnish-born and trained pro in North America – and Pekka Rautakallio leading the way, the team played in three straight finals, but the first one was the only golden one.
In recent years, Ässät has been flirting with success, too, playing in the final as recently as 2006, but even then, the “Aces” had to settle for silver medals.
To be fair, Ässät has also been flirting with disaster, even more recently. In the last ten years, the team has finished eleventh, tenth, fifth, 13th, 14th, 12th, 14th, second, and fifth, before finishing fourth this season. The club was saved by the bell in 2008 when they finished 14th, or last, in the standings, as the SM-liiga was still a closed league, with no risk of relegation.
In 2009, when Ässät finished 12th, the relegation series against the tier-two league champions had been re-introduced, and after two losing playout series, Ässät found themselves playing for their spot in the top division. They won Game 7, and lived to play another season.
The team missed the playoffs the season after that as well, but in the last two seasons, Ässät has finished in the Top 5. Last season, they got ousted in the quarter-final, but in 2013, nothing could stop them.
In the first game of the final series, Tappara – who as the second-seed had the home-ice advantage – scored the game-winner with five seconds remaining in the game. Ässät went back home, and tied the series. In Game 3, Tappara scored the game-winner in the last second of the game. At home, Ässät shut out Tappara, then won Game 5 in Tampere when Veli-Matti Savinainen scored in triple overtime.
And on Wednesday night, Veli-Pekka Ketola, captain of the 1978 team, presented the championship trophy to Ässät captain Ville Uusitalo, and the city famous for its blue-collar roots went nuts celebrating its hockey team, equally famous for its blue-collar background and style.
“I remember when I came to Ässät [twenty years ago as a player]. We beat [fierce rival] Lukko Rauma 8-0, and people were burning Lukko flags in downtown Pori. But this is just crazy,” Kivi told YLE.
In Pori, crazy is good.