The best-of-seven playoff final series between the two-top seeds needed the maximum number of seven games. It turned out to be a tight battle between both teams with six games decided by a single-goal margin that also met in the 2017/18 finals.
Grenoble knew it would need something special to defeat their opponents who could boast the experience of having reached the finals the past four seasons. The “Wolf Burners” of Grenoble got off to a great start taking a comfortable lead in the series credited to a pack of 3-2 victories in Rouen.
Parity was to be restored after the series moved to Grenoble though. A last-minute power-play goal by Florian Chakiachvili clinched Rouen’s first victory, 2-1. One day later the series was tied at two with Anthony Guttig as only player to be able to find the net in a match dominated by both goaltenders. Grenoble Czech netminder Lukas Horak saved 31 shots while his counterpart in the Rouen net, Slovenian Matija Pintaric was performing heroics with a 38-save shutout.
The stalemate continued in game five in Rouen. The Dragons ran out to a 3-1 lead halfway the game but Sacha Treille and Kyle Hardy tied the game which eventually had to be decided by penalty shots.
Anthony Guttig converted the 6th penalty shot after Olivier Latendresse had failed to net for Grenoble and with that put Rouen one victory away from their 16th ever French league title.
Grenoble wasn’t ready to capitulate yet.
After both teams had exchanged goals in game 6, it was Patrick McEachen who returned to lead to Grenoble. This time the lead did not change hands again as Grenoble delivered a quick double blow with a pair of goal in in the final minutes of the second period to extend the lead 4-1. Despite a frantic 20-shot flurry on the Grenoble net in the third period, Lukas Horak stood tall and kept Rouen at bay forcing game seven to decide on the French Championship for only the fourth time in history.
In the series where the team that scored first had always won the game, Rouen took the lead midway the first period when Marc-Andre Thinel skated into the Grenoble zone feeding a wide open Mathieu Brodeur, who took full advantage.
Grenoble stumbled on Matija Pintaric' net for the entire second period but were unable to find an opening but eventually were rewarded for their persistence in the 42nd minute when 34-year old lifelong Grenoble defenceman Christophe Tartari scored his first goal of the playoffs tapping home a loose puck in a scrimmage in front of the Rouen net.
It was the lucky break Grenoble desperately needed and stunned the home crowd which had come to the lle Lacroix ice rink in Rouen.
The home fans were already cheering again when Nicolas Ritz sent in a wrister from the point midway the final period, but the puck hit the iron and bounced back onto the open ice across the goal line.
With the clock winding down and tension building up, French national team forward Damien Fleury let go a wrist shot that found its way through traffic and flew in the top left corner behind a bewildered Pintaric.
It turned out to the be championship winning goal.
Rouen pushed forward in the final seconds with the extra attacker but the Grenoble players threw themselves in front of every puck to prevent a dramatic late equalizer forcing the game into overtime.
The first sticks and gloves flew skyward at the final buzzer as Grenoble were able to celebrate their first title since 2009 and seventh in total.
“It was a crazy match,” Fleury commented afterwards. “We started nervously but after falling behind we let it go and started playing our game. We are ecstatic with this title, but credit should also be given to Rouen which allowed the fans to watch such a great series and showed that French hockey is on the rise.”
This stature of ice hockey in France has indeed gained reputation not just by the number of French-born players in the NHL but also the results of the national senior and youth teams have boosted the popularity of the game in France.
The resurgence of Grenoble will contribute to this.
Having been established in 1963, the blue and red formation worked its way up to the summit of French hockey resulting into several league titles and even a short spell of dominance in the late 2000s.
Cristobal Huet is probably the best known player coming out of the youth ranks of Grenoble. The French goaltender had an illustrious career that led him through 5 NHL franchises in 7 seasons before returning to Switzerland where he hung up his leg guards last season at the age of 42.
In 1992 the team officially adopted the a-typical nickname “wolf burners”, from a local legend, as nicknames became a trademark in French hockey.
The names dates back to the early days of hockey in Grenoble when the team parted ways with collaborating with Villard-de Lans. In search of a new nick name, “wolf burners” is first being used by Albert Fontaine, a journalist of the Dauphine Libere newspaper and originates from the 18th century where wolves were turned to pits and burned to eradicate canine packs that threatened life stock in the area.
Despite its somewhat obscure history, the Grenoble hockey fans are embracing their nickname with pride knowing it’s probably unique for any sports team on this planet. The team logo does show a wolf’s head partially on fire and is a fast selling merchandise item in the region and was prominently visible as the players showcased the trophy upon arrival back in Grenoble.
Celebrations will be cut short for the French national team players of Grenoble though. Next week the team will regroup to prepare for the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Slovakia where France has been seeded into a group with Canada, USA, Finland, Germany, Slovakia, Denmark and newly promoted Great Britain.