With 37 wins in 52 games, the Adler finished the regular season 1st overall with 116 points, seven more than finals opponent Munich. Still, it took an incredibly dramatic Game 5 of the DEL final to make their latest championship possible.
Dramatic is the word of the day, because after a 4-1 lead 31 minutes into the game, Mannheim needed a slapshot goal from defenceman Thomas Larkin in the 14th minute of overtime to win this 5th and final game 5-4.
The goal was assisted by Garrett Festerling and former NHLer Marcel Goc, who had spent a good 15 seconds skating circles around Munich’s zone, before dropping a pass off to Festerling who quickly found Larkin in the slot for the one-timer that ended it all. This led to an eruption in Mannheim’s SAP Arena, which hosted 13’400 passionate fans, that has been several years in coming. The puck seemed to have barely crossed the line before the players flooded the ice in a wave of tossed sticks and equipment, special light effects making their mark on the celebration throughout the arena.
“I don’t even know how that goal from Larkin happened,“ explained the 35-year-old veteran Goc, for whom this is surprisingly his first DEL title. “But I don’t care how it went in, we’ve won. Now we’re going to party like there’s no tomorrow!“
All in all, Goc was the man of the night, having scored the game’s first goal in the sixth minute before assisting on the 2-0 goal by Cody Lampl in the 12th minute of play. By the time Matthias Plachta whipped in a one-timer off a perfect pass from former Calgary Flame David Wolf, his fifth goal of the playoffs, it looked like the championship was all but wrapped up. The teams would exchange goals in the second, but it looked like Mannheim would kick off the third period with a (familiar) 4-1 lead.
But that certainly wasn’t part of the plans for Munich, which showed a sign of life with an Andreas Eder goal shortly – and unexpectedly – before the end of the 2nd period.
The 3rd period would be the best Munich played in the series, with Patrick Hager scoring a power play goal in the 46th minute and Yasin Ehliz pumping in an even strength tally not even two minutes later. Further chances were created on both sides, before the game headed to overtime, which offered viewers a potpourri of ice hockey action. The teams went back and forth, exchanging one golden chance after another, until the deciding dagger was placed in Munich’s heart.
And that dagger brought with it a sad reality that had been long in coming the past few weeks.
"The Adler played a fantastic season. They earned this championship,“ explained Munich’s coach Don Jackson, clearly with a heavy heart. “Our season hasn’t ended perfectly, but we achieved a lot this year. ’Proud‘ is the word I have to describe how I feel about my team."
Despite Munich’s incredibly long and hard-fought series against Augsburg, Game 1 of the finals proved to be the kind of true cup contention battle fans across the league had expected. That it was so low-scoring was a sign that things were just bound to go Munich’s way. Ben Smith got Mannheim on the board via a power play goal in the 24th minute. It was a 1-0 lead that held until the 48th minute when former NHLer Matt Stajan tied things up with a brilliant shorthanded goal. Things would stay that way well into overtime until clutch performer Frank Mauer ended the affair in the 78th minute, giving an admittedly weary-looking Red Bulls team the series’ first game.
However, that goal basically woke up the giant, as the ensuing games would go to show.
Game 2 was proved to be another close match of chess, but Mannheim’s Chad Kolarik already gave the Adler the lead on a solo effort in just the 2nd minute of play. The Adler then had to go to work, shutting down Munich’s power play for four(!) straight shorthanded situations in the 2nd period. Making that all that much more impressive is that first man advantage situation was for four minutes when defenceman Larkin took another penalty just seconds into that call, giving Munich a full two minutes of 5-on-3 play, before concluding with another 1:58 of 5-on-4 play.
But these opportunities were to no avail, something that rarely goes well for a team in the finals. Two more power plays were killed off, before Mannheim got their shot at the man advantage. And as fate would have it, the league’s best power play struck again in the form of this year’s breakout sensation Markus Eisenschmid, who made the game 2-0 in the 44th minute. A shorthanded empty net marker with just under four minutes to play crowned the 3-0 shutout for Adler goalie Dennis Endras. This result proved to be a sign of things to come.
As quick as Kolarik’s goal was in Game 2, it didn’t compare to teammate Plachta’s Game 3 goal, which came after just five seconds, thus tying a DEL finals record for a game’s quickest goal. The game’s star would be former NHLer Andrew Desjardins, who scored the Adler’s 2nd and 3rd goals, before Munich’s Hager finally put in a Munich power play goal in the 31st minute. It was Munich’s first goal in the series in over 90 minutes of play. Mannheim would go on to win 4-1.
The series went back to Munich for Game 4 and the defending champs simply looked out of gas. Mannheim didn’t have to be asked twice to take advantage of this situation and broke through with three goals between the 24th and 26th minute from Cody Lampl, Smith, and Phil Hungerecker, respectively. Upcoming NHL draft pick Moritz Seider, a defenceman who is just 17-yearls-old, collected two assists on those goals, the first multi-point game of his young professional career. Another goal by Plachta in the 42nd proved to be the death knell, giving Mannheim a commanding 3-1 series lead, including shutouts for Endras in Games 2 and 4, something no goaltender had ever done in the DEL finals.
Speaking of Endras, he was named playoff’s MVP. The 33-year-old put up an incredibly impressive 1.57 goals against average and 92.5% save percentage on the way to a 12-2 record. All that included four shutouts.
Fourth time the charm
There were a number of side stories adding to the drama of this series, none more touching than that of Mannheim’s coach Pavel Gross. Acquired in the offseason after many years in Wolfsburg, and paired with one-time teammate Mike Pellegrims, a man he won three titles with as a player in Mannheim, Gross found himself facing Don Jackson in a DEL final for the fourth time. For the first time, he has come out on top as the victor. Long considered by insiders to be one of the best coaches in Central Europe, he’s finally captured that oh so elusive championship, proving as well that he’s not just a master coach for teams with low-profile rosters. Indeed, this Adler team was loaded with big names and all the challenges that can accompany a team in danger of featuring too many chiefs and not enough Indians, a problem that hasn’t been uncommon in Mannheim over the years.
At the same time, a glorious career has ended for Munich’s Michael Wolf. The league’s all-time best goal scorer, the 38-year old made it known this year that he was ending his career after this season. The author of 327 DEL goals over the span of 14 years was honoured before the awarding of the DEL champion’s trophy to rousing applause from an ice hockey crazy Mannheim public, and which is very aware of Wolf’s achievements in the league and for the German national team.
For Red Bull winger Frank Mauer, it was his fifth DEL final in a row, but his first ended without the championship. Indeed, Mauer has not only been part of Munich’s dynasty for all three titles, but grew up in Mannheim’s system, having won the title with the Adler in the 2014-15 season.
Road to the final
After a downright dominant regular season, the Mannheim Adler (that’s German for Eagles, by the way) entered the playoffs as the heavy favourite and certainly didn’t allow anyone to think differently through the first two rounds. Kicking things off against Nuremberg, the Adler won the first three games with little trouble, before the Ice Tigers were able to decide Game 4 4-3 in an exciting overtime contest. Mannheim emphatically finished them off 7-4 in Game 5 to proceed to the next round, where they’d face the Cologne Haie (Sharks), a team that had lost several key players to injury as part of its 7-game series against Ingolstadt.
It came as no big surprise that Mannheim only needed four (admittedly close) games to knock of Cologne. The Haie weren’t able to muster up a goal in the first five periods of the series (granted, the first game ended 1-0 in overtime) and offense was hard to come by. Mannheim was very consistent with its continued goal production, proceeding to end the series on the strength of 4-1, 4-0, and 4-2 victories. By the time round two was over, the Adler had only played nine games and would spend almost an entire week waiting to see who their DEL finals opponent would be.
The playoffs were a bit different for the other finalist Munich, a team that has won three straight titles and had lost this winter’s CHL final against current SHL finalist Frolunda Gothenburg. The team also features a number of players who were part of Team Germany’s silver medal at last winter’s Olympics, meaning that this team has played a ton of ice hockey in recent years.
The first round of the playoffs saw Munich take on an Eisbaren Berlin team that had had an up-and-down season, but featured a ton of experience and plenty of players who are used to winning. It was also a rematch of last spring’s DEL final and Berlin was coming off of two straight wins in the pre-playoffs, leading to a wave of confidence that was easy to see in the first two games. It took overtime for Munich to defeat Berlin 3-2 in Game 1, before the Eisbaren answered with an overwhelming 4-0 victory in Game 2. Munich took over with 4-1 and 5-2 victories in the next two games before Berlin tightened things up for a 3-0 win and what ended up being a close 4-3 loss to Munich in Game 6.
Munich’s second round opponent would be the Augsburg Panthers and this is where things got real interesting for ice hockey Germany’s new underdog favourite. The league’s unexpected third best regular season team needed a seven-game series to knock of Düsseldorf, but didn’t seem affected or impressed with Munich and fought a battle against the reigning champs that went the full seven games.
The highest scoring contest was a 4-3 win for Augsburg in Game 2 while the series saw three 2-1 results, two of which were first in overtime, with victories in those contests split by the teams. The series would then end with three shutouts, namely 1-0 for Munich, 2-0 for Augsburg, and then 2-0 in Game 7 for Munich. It cost the defending champs an incredible amount of energy, tested the will of their goalies at every turn, and ultimately displayed that the league’s 2nd best regular season team was having a very hard time getting over the season-ending injuries to defenceman Konrad Abeltshauser and forwards Max Kastner and Justin Jaffray. Top forward Mark Voakes would also go on to miss the finals’ last three games.
Cracks were in the shell and the question heading into the finals was if legendary coach Don Jackson was going to be able to pull of 4th consecutive rabbit out of his hat.
Recognition for a huge year of work
The 2019 DEL Player of the Year was Danny aus den Birken, Munich’s number one netminder and the man who could do it all at the 2018 Winter Olympics, having been named the Olympic tournament’s MVP. The German Ice Hockey League felt it was now high time to recognize him at the domestic level as well, doing so by calling him the best player in the league. With a minuscule 1.91 goals against average, a 92.6% save percentage, and five shutouts, the 34-year old netminder finished first or second in all of the league’s most important goaltending statistics in his 37 games of action, clearly backing up the league’s decision. Furthermore, aus den Birken would go on to put up practically identical numbers in 18 playoff games, even if this wouldn’t be enough to help win the team its 4th straight title. This was however his second DEL Player of the Year award after having taken the prize in 2014.
Not surprisingly, aus den Birken was also named the league’s Goalie of the Year.
Other awards were given out as well, including some names that are neither household nor roll off the tongue easily. The league’s best defenceman was Mannheim ace Joonas Lehtivuori while the best forward was long-time veteran Philip Gogulla of the Dusseldorf EG. Lehtivuori joined the league this season from the Finnish Liiga and struck like lightning, collecting eight goals and 31 points along with a +22 rating. He was less visible in the playoffs with just three assists and a +7 in 14 games. The red-headed Gogulla, a one-time draft pick of the Buffalo Sabres, joined his childhood team last summer after many years of suiting up for the arch-rival Cologne Sharks, enjoyed a new lease on life heading a topflight offense with 26 goals and 52 points in 52 games. It was his best ever regular season in the DEL and he put up 15 more goals than in the season before.
The coach of the year was once again champion-creator Don Jackson of the Munich Red Bull. The architect of eight DEL championships and a participant in 10, the award came as recognition of his constant and uncontested success as one of Germany’s, if not all of Europe’s, winningest coaches. His reign of titles may have come to an end this year, but not before his team’s 11 straight playoff series victories set a league record.
The league’s Rookie of the Year was the aforementioned Moritz Seider, a young defencemen who many feel will be a top 15 pick in this summer’s NHL draft. Although his two goals and six assists didn’t compare to a number of the league’s top scoring forward freshmen, his overachievement and performance was undeniable as a young man gaining regular ice time for the league’s top team.
Interestingly, the league’s top scorer was a forward who didn’t make it past the pre-playoffs, namely Straubing’s Jeremy Williams. The former Toronto Maple Leaf scored 30 goals and 57 points in 52 games. More astounding is the fact that none of the league’s top nine scorers made it past the first round of the playoffs. Jacob Berglund of Krefeld, who pumped in a league high 32 goals, didn’t even see action in the pre-playoffs. Despite these anomalies, it came as no surprise that the Adler featured seven of the playoffs top eight scorers, with Desjardins leading the way on the strength of nine goals and 14 points in 13 games.