Known as the EBEL from 2003 to 2020, the Austrian-based ICE Hockey League has now reigned in its 2020/21 champion, and its first since the league changed its name and chief sponsor this past summer.
This new champion is none other than the hallowed Austrian club from Klagenfurt, the KAC, which is now Austria’s champion for the 30th time since the first title was awarded in 1923. It’s also its seventh title this century and technically its second in a row after having been the 2019 EBEL champions before the pandemic put an end to the 2020 playoffs before they took place.
And picking up this Karl Nedwed Trophy victory couldn’t have been any sweeter!
After having been entrenched in second place for just about the entire season, the team affectionately known as the “Red Jackets” had to go through the first place HC Bolzano, which had been the league’s top ranked club in both the preliminary round and the 8-game placement round. The men from Bolzano in the Italian region of South Tyrol were also the league champs in 2018 and have been a powerhouse in recent years.
Alas, the much-anticipated match-up turned into a 5-game series in which Klagenfurt put an exclamation mark behind its claim to the championship. The KAC kicked things off with a shocking 6-0 victory on the road before heading home for a much tougher 5-4 victory. Bolzano then used that newfound elan to take Game 3 with a tight 2-0 home victory, leading more than a few observers to think they were geared to turn the series around. However, a 2-1 overtime victory for Klagenfurt in Game 4 set up a do-or-die situation for the Italians in Game 5.
Game 5 proves decisive
With their backs to the wall, things started off pretty well for Bolzano when Angelo Miceli won a battle behind the KAC goal in the sixth minute of play and sent the puck to Luca Figo, who ripped it past goaltender Sebastian Dahm, who himself is coming off an MVP season by putting up a 1.81 GAA and 93.1 save percentage in 38 games. This gave the Italians some new life and led to a phase where their second goal felt like it’d just be a question of time.
However, things changed over the last five minutes of the first period and the playoff’s top scorer Nick Petersen was in the right place at the right time after a deflected shot attempt by Martin Schumnig in the 18th minute of play landed on his stick and he was able to get it past Alperia keeper Irving Leland, allowing the first period to end in a 1-1 tie.
Things continued in the same path for Klagenfurt in the second period when they were able to capitalize on the power play caused by an interference penalty taken by forward Mike Halmo. The goal was tallied by Matt Fraser off a nice little pass from Rok Ticar, who grabbed the rebound of a one-timer by - you guessed it - Nick Petersen. The Red Jackets were then able to make use of their next power play to give themselves a 3-1 advantage in the 27th minute of play when Ticar then chipped a rebound over Irving and into the goal.
But before things could get out of hand, Bolzano was able to use a power play of its own to cut the lead to 3-2 in the 34th minute when Dustin Gazley slid the puck past Dahm. The goal gave the Foxes the energy they needed to gain momentum for the rest of the period, but they weren’t able to capitalize on several great opportunities, the best having come from Gazley, who looked like he might be in for a special third period.
Alas, the straw that broke the camel’s back resulted during a 5-on-3 power play for Klagenfurt when Daniel Catenacci and Nick Plastino found themselves in the penalty box and Fraser was once again able to pump one in from the slot. The goal would end up being the game-winner, as Brett Findlay’s power play goal in the 49th minute would prove to be too little, too late. Despite taking the scepter in the hand and looking to tie things up in the worst way, Klagenfurt’s team defense pulled it out in every capacity necessary, eventually leading to Manuel Geier’s technical goal after he was upended by Catenacci while making his way towards an empty net.
The clock eventually ticked down to zero and the league had its old, first champion.
The path to the championship
Bolzano had been the league’s clear-cut number one team while Klagenfurt had been a close second. Pleasantly interesting was that Hungary’s Fehervar finished the season tied for third overall with 82 points, despite slowing down considerably in the placement round. In the regular season, the Hungarians actually left powerhouses Vienna Capitals and Red Bull Salzburg behind them in the standings. Disappointingly interesting is that the Black Wings Linz finished last overall by the time the qualification round was completed, despite playing better in the qualification round and featuring top talents Umicevic and Brian Lebler in their line-up.
Once the playoffs began, Klagenfurt marched through all three rounds to the title by winning each series 4-1, including an almost unexpected 4-1 trouncing of Salzburg in Round 2, thus collecting a 12-3 overall record. Bolzano was able to kick things off by defeating Bratislava 4-1, but then had its hands full in a hard-fought 4-2 series victory over the Vienna Capitals, which noticeably cost the team a ton of energy heading into the finals.
Not a single series went the distance while the Capitals’ 4-0 slashing of Fehervar in the first round proved to be the only sweep.
Topping the lists
After goaltender Sebastian Dahm took regular season MVP honors, forward Nick Peterson was named the playoff MVP thanks to 10 goals and 13 assists in just 15 games. This was accompanied by a +10 rating on the way to the championship. The Canadian had finished 6th overall in league scoring during the regular season, meaning he ultimately finished the year as the league’s overall top scorer with 30 goals, 73 points, and a +35 rating. Teammate Rok Ticar finished 4th overall in scoring on the strength of 24 goals, 60 points, and a +29 rating over 63 games.
For Bolzano, Brett Findlay (57 points in 59 games) and Dustin Gazley (53 points in 57 games) led the way, finishing 5th and 6th overall in league scoring, respectively. Although surprising that the best team in the league standings didn’t even feature one PPG player, teammate Denis Robertson did lead all defensemen in scoring with 13 goals and 41 points in 63 games, slightly topping Vienna’s Alex Wall who had 40 points in “only” 53 contests.
Vienna’s Ty Loney was second overall in scoring with 64 points in 54 games, while leading the league with 37 goals and a +36 rating. Long-time SHL forward Dragan Umicevic, now 36 years old, got a new lease on his scoring life, leading the league with 50 assists and finishing third overall in scoring with 64 points in 47 games, making his points-per-game pace the most impressive in the league.
A league of novelties
Known as the EBEL over the past 17 years, the league brought in a new chief sponsor and altered its name into the ICE Hockey League. Despite what was popularly assumed to be a simplistic name as a direct homage to the sport, ICEHL actually stands for International Central European Hockey League and now once again consisted of teams from no less than four different countries.
Despite having lost members from Croatia, the Czech Republic, and Slovenia in recent years, the league did welcome the Bratislava Capitals. The newbie from one of the hockey world’s most famed locations, the Capitals finished 7th in the regular season and then 2nd in the qualification round before bowing out to Bolzano in the first round of the playoffs. Coached by famed German-Czech Peter Draisaitl, the team featured nine players 23 or younger and will surely be one of the league’s prized members when the Corona pandemic is a thing of the past, seeing as how the team plays in the Ondrej Nepela Arena which can host more than 10’000 attendees.
Speaking of attendance, the worldwide pandemic put a serious dent in any such situation and the league, like most all others, can only hope that some form of return to normality can take place in time for the 21/22 season with Olimpija Ljubljana (Slovenia), Pustertal Bruneck (Italy) and returning Orli Znojmo (Czech Republic) as new clubs to make it a 14-team league.
We’re looking forward to just that!