Defenceman Adam Comrie scored his 6th goal of the postseason to give Klagenfurt its 31st overall Austrian title.
Having received a pass from fellow American David Fischer, Comrie faked a wrist shot and deked into the middle before launching a slightly blocked wrister that somehow found its way past Vienna all-star goaltender Jean Philippe Lamoureux. At that point, a packed Klagenfurt Stadthalle erupted in a celebration quite reminiscent of your finest Oktoberfest ceremonies as the KAC bench emptied to pile on top of their latest hero.
Goals were certainly hard to come by in this series, which was a rematch of the 2016-17 season final in which an historic Capitals club knocked off the KAC in four straight contests. Revenge was exacted for Klagenfurt by Lars Haugen, Norway’s national team goaltender who had manned the nets for the SHL’s Farjestad the past three seasons.
Acquired to bring home a championship, he did just that while leading the entire league with a 1.74 goals against average and 93.3 save percentage. These stats basically put him right ahead of Lamoureux as the league’s top netminder, who himself holds the league record for all-time wins by a goaltender.
It was only proper that this series would turn into a classic goaltending duel.
“When you have the two best goalies in the league meeting up in the finals, and five of the six games are decided by one goal – two of which in overtime – then yes, you’d have to call it a goalie duel at its best. Haugen ended up making one more save than Lamoureux needed to, otherwise the series would have seen a Game 7”, explained Vienna’s goaltending coach Varian Kirst.
To fully understand that, there’s no getting past a breakdown of the series.
Game 1 took place in the Austrian capital and ended with the exact same score as Game 6, but in favour of the Capitals. Another Norwegian, Sondre Olden (who was a late season acquisition from Zagreb), popped in the winning goal in the 66th minute. Game 2 ended up being a tight-checking affair in which Klagenfurt’s Stefan Geier scored the game-winner already in the 18th minute of play. Haugen would end up making 29 saves for the shutout victory. Lamoureux stopped 19 of 20 shots, but that wouldn’t be enough for a win.
Games 3 and 4 would see the two teams exchange 3-2 victories (a common theme in the series), each club winning its home game. Emilio Romig’s goal in the 29th minute of Game 3 would prove the winner for Vienna while Matthew Neal’s 37th minute tally would give Klagenfurt a 3-0 lead and serve as the winner for Game 4, allowing KAC to tie up the series, the first of three straight victories for Klagenfurt.
Game 5 would prove decisive in the goaltending battle, as Vienna threw 35 shots on goal and not one of them got past Haugen. The same could not be said for Lamoureux, who gave up two goals on just 18 shots.
This brought the series back to Klagenfurt with a match ball in hand. Another tight-checking match saw Vienna gain 1-0 and 2-1. But a resilient opponent kept responding with goals from Patrick Harand (21st minute) and Nick Petersen, the team’s top scorer, with his clutch 2-2 goal coming in the 53rd minute of play.
Again, it was strange tale of goaltending as Lamoureux would make 33 saves on the night while Haugen made nine less, but when all was said and done, the overtime marker from Comrie had rung the bell on Vienna’s season and set the town of Klagenfurt into a fit of celebrations that may still be going on at this very moment.
This EBEL title has a special meaning for KAC coach Petri Matikainen, who had lost in two finals back home in Finland and can now finally call himself a champion. His Nordic colleague Haugen also had something extraordinary to celebrate, as his four shutouts as of the semi-final set a league record.
Austria’s dominant ice hockey program from 1965-1080, Klagenfurt finished third overall in the regular season and had last won the EBEL championship in the 2012/13 season. It kicked off this year’s playoffs by knocking off the reigning champion Bolzano Foxes quite convincingly in just five games.
Next up was Graz, which Klagenfurt dispatched in just four, allowing just four goals including two shutouts. By doing away with Graz in this early fashion, Klagenfurt earned itself nine days of preparation before heading to Vienna to face the battle-tested and weary Vienna Capitals.
Vienna had to make quite a trip to face Klagenfurt. Things seemed easy enough in the first round when the club played the Czech Republic’s Orli Znojmo, who it defeated in five games, with the lone loss coming in Game 2. The series victory was quite emphatic, seeing Vienna put up 24 goals and only allow nine.
But the true first test came in round two. There they met up with league power Red Bulls Salzburg and the series went the distance, an arduous one at that. Vienna kicked things off with a 4-2 Game 1 before grabbing a 2-1 victory in Game 2 in the 83rd minute of play, on the strength of a Sondre Olden overtime goal.
But the Red Bulls jumped back into things with 4-3 (OT) and 5-3 victories in Games 3 and 4. Another overtime feast saw Vienna gain the series edge in Game 5, with Olden once again putting in the OT winner, before Salzburg would then need the series’ fourth overtime game to tie things up at three on the strength of a Raphael Herburger goal. Three days later, the Capitals ended things on home ice with a 3-1 victory.
The series was highly emotional and naturally took its toll on the players, who would then go on to actually win Game 1 of the finals not even 48 hours later.
“I think we came into Game 1 with a bit of a high from the Salzburg series and that pushed us through the stress of only having 40 hours of rest between games,” explained Kirst. “We could have used more energy in Game 2, going into their rink, but it was a close 1-0 win for KAC. After that, we knew it was going to be a hard battle and a long series. Ultimately, I feel our energy levels were good enough to win every game we played.”
New EBEL MVP
The Ron Kennedy MVP Trophy, named after the sadly deceased Ron Kennedy, made its way into the hands of yet another Vienna Capital, Peter Schneider, who put up 12 points and a +4 in Vienna’s run for the title. Overall, Schneider ended second in league scoring with 40 goals, 81 points, and a +36 rating in 72 games, which placed him second to teammate Christopher DeSousa, who racked up 46 goals, 83 points, and a +46 in the same amount of games. Ironically, his teammates Rafael Rotter (2018) and Riley Holzapfel (2017) had been given the award the previous two seasons.
Interestingly, another Capital, Taylor Vause, would end up leading the league in playoff scoring with six goals and 20 points in 18 games after having put up 45 points in the regular season. For Klagenfurt, veteran Thomas Koch (15 points) and league newbie Nick Petersen (14) led the way in playoff scoring, meaning that Petersen enjoyed a 31-goal, 79-point season in his EBEL debut.
Speaking of newbies, Capitals forward Benjamin Nissner won the league’s Youngstar of the Year award. He’s the second Capital to get this award in the past three seasons. The 21-year-old Vienna native truly arrived on the scene this year, playing all 72 games and contributing 14 goals, 38 points, and a +15 rating. He has been part of the organization for pretty much his entire hockey career to date.
The league’s highest scoring defenceman ended up being former national team forward Oliver Setzinger, who put up eight goals and 53 points for Graz. Game 6 hero Adam Comrie led the league among defencemen with 21 goals.
A growing league
The 12-team EBEL, which consists of teams from five nations, is coming off a season in which it continued to grow in attractiveness. To begin, not a team in the league averaged a home attendance less than the 2,065 average in Innsbruck, a team that plays at a 3,000-capacity arena. Six teams averaged over 2,800 per home date and both Vienna and Linz drew over 4,600 in attendance. On-ice success in Klagenfurt and Graz was rewarded with over 3,700 and 3,100 in attendance, respectively. Also drawing in over 3,100 viewers was the Hungarian representative Fehervar.
The league was also able to welcome over 1.1 million in attendance in the course of the 353 games played this past season. With 34,400 overall visitors to this spring’s final, a record was also set for finals attendance. 4,945 people attended Game 6 in Klagenfurt after 7,022 had been in attendance for Game 5 in Vienna. These are numbers that would have many European leagues licking their chops.
Disappointing however was the average attendance in Zagreb, where just over 2,150 people wanted to, on average, see the home-town team play. This was the second worst statistic in this category in the league and came on the tails of an initial season in which the club averaged just under 4,950 attendants per game. This was a huge blow to a team that plays in a venue that can hold a crowd of 5,500. Without a doubt, the team’s last place finish played the biggest role in this development.
A similar result could be seen in Znojmo, where a 4,800-capacity stadium only welcomed an average of 2,542 visitors this past season. The team’s 8th place finish might have played a role in this, but Znojmo will also remain one of the most interesting sites in all of Europe, because the Czech Republic also has a very well-established league of its own.
Still, the league remains an attractive destination for players and host a plethora of national team members as well as many former NHLers, or at least players who had once been drafted by an NHL team.
“The EBEL is a very good league to work and in. It’s very competitive as you can see by all the overtime and 1-goal games throughout the playoffs”, states Kirst, in his second year of EBEL employment. “The players really enjoy playing in this league as they get to experience hockey in five different countries and great fans in every single city, they play in.”
Indeed, the EBEL continues to be a shining example of just how passionate and devoted fans are for the sport of ice hockey throughout Austria, parts of Italy, Croatia, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. This year was no different.