Another exciting season has come to an end in the Erste Liga, the league formerly known as MOL Liga with teams mostly from Hungary and Romania.
As in the past there were teams that left the league and new one were added. After the end of the 2017/18 season the two teams that played for championship the previous three seasons, MAC Budapest and DVTK Miskolc, left to play in the Slovak Extraliga. Joining the league for the season were Gyergyoi HK from Romania, Debreceni EAC (DEAC), HK Budapest and Vasas. Vasas and Gyergyo returned after a hiatus with DEAC taking the place of Debreceni HK, who had left the league two year prior because of financial issues. The rest of the league was rounded out by Romanian clubs Corona Brasov, SC Csikszereda, and Hungarian teams Dunaujvarosi Acelbikak, UTE, Ferencvaros, Fehervari Titanok and from Austrian the farm team of the Vienna Capitals.
During the offseason it was Ferencvaros who went through the biggest overhaul. The club brought in former player Szabolcs Fodor as the head coach. This was Fodor’s first head coaching job with a senior pro team. The roster that he put together was a mix of experienced veterans who had played with and young players who he had coached at the junior level. The addition of Gergely Arany in net from MAC along with Gergo Nagy from the ECHL and Attila Pavuk from DVTK were key acquisition on the Hungarian level, but also picked up the Fitzgerald brothers, Leo and Myles, from the NCAA as import players.
Csikszereda also strengthened their team with Tihamer Becze along with imports such as former KHL players Konstantin Panov, Vadim Krosnolobovets and Mikhail Anisin. Among the new teams HK Budapest signed former Hungarian national team defenceman Attila Orban, Gyergyo added veteran Pavel Vorobyov with Vasas going with the plan of building on their players coming up from the junior team.
The Erste Liga season was split after 40 games with the top-five teams qualifying for the playoffs and playing each other twice for the playoff seeding with the bottom six teams battling for the final three playoff spots. This year the top five teams in the regular season were Ferencvaros, Csikszereda, UTE, Brasov and DEAC with the bottom six being the Fehervari Titanok, Gyergyo, Dunaujvaros, Vienna, Vasas and HK Budapest. The middle part of the season was play the eight playoff teams were Ferencvaros with UTE moving up to second place, DEAC up to third, Csikszereda and Brasov slipped down to fourth and fifth place respectively. The final three playoff teams were Fehervar, Gyergyo and Vienna.
In the playoffs Ferenvaros got past Vienna in a three game sweep, with UTE also only needing four games to get Fehervar in the quarter finals. DEAC and Gyergyó went the full seven games as DEAC made it to the second round. In the final playoff pairing the Transylvanian rivals Csikszereda and Brasov faced each other as Sport Club Csikszereda swept Brasov in four games.
In the semi-finals Ferencvaros took on DEAC with UTE and Csikszereda going head to head in the other series. The regular season champions cruised through in four games to reach the finals with Csikszereda upsetting UTE in six to make it to the finals. Ferencvaros had not won a league title of any kind since 1997 with Csikszereda being the MOL League champions in 2011.
In the finals on the road in Budapest, Csikszereda pulled off the upset in game one by the score of 7-3, all seven goals were scored by different players but Tamas Reszegh finished the game with one goal and two assists. The next day in game two, Ferencvaros came back strong to even the series up with a 7-2 win behind a hat trick by Brett Switzer. The series shifted to Romania for games three and four. The Lajos Vakar arena in Csikszereda is a notoriously hard place to play. Despite this Ferencvaros pulled in game three in a really playoff battle as Ferencvaros won in overtime 2-1 thanks to a goal by Marcus Perrier. In game four the general thought was that it will be very hard for Ferencvaros to win two games in Csikszereda. However Ferencvaros won again by one goal, 3-2. Csikszereda battled hard and Tihamer Becze scored twice but Ferencvaros scored the game winner with less than four minutes left to go up 3-1 in the series and have a chance to win the Erste Liga on home ice in front of their fans.
In game five Csikszereda scored first as Shulakov scored a power play goal in the first period. Just past the midway point of the game Ferencvaros scored twice within a minute two flip the score, with Adrian Tóth making it 3-1 late in the second period. Ferencvaros opened up a 5-1 lead in the early part of the third period. With less than five minutes to play in the game Csikszereda scored to get back within three goals but by then it was too late. In the end Ferencvaros took the game and the league title. Ferencvaros forward Attila Pavuk was voted the playoff MVP.
“It feels really great, this was a special situation. I am very happy that we were able to achieve the goal that we set for ourselves at the start of the season. This was basically a new team with a new base. We believed in ourselves, we believed in the team and we believed in the coaches. What was the most important that the coaches believe in us as well.” said Pavuk after the fifth game.
Ferencvaros head coach Szabolcs Fodor also had some words after the game: “We did not play the way we wanted to in the first period because of the pressure that we put on ourselves. In the second period we were able to shake this off and played well. We finished the work that we started. The secret was that we had the heart to believe in ourselves. We had a good team all season, the guys worked hard all year.”
Of the eight teams that made the playoffs three of them also played in the Romanian playoffs. Galati won the regular season with Csikszereda and Brasov finishing in second and third place respectively with Gyergyo taking the last playoff spot. In the first round of the playoffs Galati got past Gyergyo with the rivals Csikszereda and Brasov battling for the other spot in the finals. In the end Brasov advanced to face Galati. Brasov defeated Galati for the Romanian title, this also marked the end of the career for legendary forward Arpad Mihaly, who announced his retirement earlier this week.