And honestly, it’s been quite some time since the DEL has concluded its season with a champion other than the Red Bull Munich or Mannheim, but that’s exactly what was happening Friday night one way or the other as this year’s final pitted Eisbaren Berlin against a very upstart Wolfsburg Grizzlys.
For now, and on this special evening, Eisbaren Berlin are the team on top and they had to go the distance in this year’s finals series to make it happen, winning… Game 3 in a thrillingly defensive fashion to take their spot on the throne.
The all-decisive game started off with a bang as a faceoff in Wolfsburg’s zone in the second minute of play led to a quick and skillfully executed goal on a tip in by Mark Olver, who received a dandy of a spinorama style pass through the crease from linemate Chris Foucault. But it only took 25 seconds until a controversial keep-in on Berlin’s blueline would see Mathis Olimb corral the puck and circle around Berlin’s zone until he sniped it over goaltender Mathias Niederberger’s left shoulder into the far right corner of the net, making it 1-1 before three whole minutes had been played.
If fans thought this was going to become a goal festival, they were in for quite a surprise.
Play resembled a stalemate of sorts throughout the rest of the first period and into the second until hulking Berlin defenceman Kai Wissmann jumped far up into the zone to push the puck away from a Wolfsburg forward, collect it behind Wolfsburg’s goal, and spin it around to Leo Pfoderl, who tapped it past Grizzly goaltender Dustin Strahlmeier. For Pfoderl, it was his third goal of the playoffs and would prove to be the game-winner, but also of amazing importance when one takes into account that a late season injury actually looked to have him done for the season.
As the period died down, Wolfsburg pulled Strahlmeier, but to no avail. The Eisbaren defence simply plugged the ice time and time again until the buzzer went off and the players streamed onto the surface throwing sticks, gloves, and helmets all over the place as they gathered around championship goaltender Niederberger.
“I am incredibly proud of what we’ve achieved,” said Noebels. “What we did sure wasn’t easy. But we got the job done, even when our back was against the wall. And this is just incredible. Becoming the league champion is an absolute highlight.”
Forward Pfoderl, author of the game-winner, further explained, “Boy, Wolfsburg was, well, really unpleasant. I can’t do anything but give them a major compliment for what they achieved. Whatever the key to our victory was, well, I really don’t give a damn. All that’s important is that it’s time for us to celebrate!”
For Wolfsburg, which had kicked off the series with a 3-2 overtime victory on the strength of an outstanding individual effort by defenseman Julian Melchiori only to lose Game 2 by a more convincing 4-1 score, they left the ice as the runner-up for the fourth time in their DEL history, having yet to win a DEL championship.
“We battled. Nobody thought we’d get here. I’m pretty sure of that,” explained long-year Grizzly defenseman Jeff Likens, with blood streaming down over his left eye. “I’m proud to be a part of these guys. Even if we didn’t come out on top, these guys will be a part of my life forever. They’ve got great careers ahead of them as individuals and a team, and I’m honored to be a part of that.”
Eisbaren Berlin is part of the Anschutz Group hailing out of California, owners of no less than the Los Angeles Kings and Los Angeles Galaxy. The Sports Manager is former Adler Mannheim icon Stephane Richer, who also served as the GM of the now defunct Hamburg Freezers, which were once also part of the Anschutz group. The GM is Peter John Lee, a former first rounder of the Montreal Canadiens, who has been the team’s GM since the 1999/2000 season.
Head coach Serge Aubin used to coach the Hamburg Freezers after having to retire prematurely due to a complicated hand injury. His assistant coach Craig Streu is a former member of the German national team and has been working together with Aubin since the 2016/17 season, when the two got together to work for the Vienna Capitals. After two seasons there, including an EBEL championship and appearance in the Champions Hockey League, the pair coached the ZSC Lions Zurich for part of the 2018/19 season and have been working the bench together for Berlin over the past two seasons.
Streu’s son Sebastian, who has played for Germany’s U18 and U20 teams, is a forward on the team, making the family a two-time champion as of this evening.
The path to the finals
This story begins last fall and it’s one that almost didn’t take place at all.
As a league whose teams live year to year almost entirely on gate receipts, the news from Germany’s political sector that attendees were basically not going to permitted brought the league to a halt for several months. After some heavy pressure through the press and the cutting of many corners, especially when it came to player salaries (which wouldn’t have been possible without the agreement and cooperation of the players) and subsidies from the government for the lost income, the league finally took flight with all 14 contestants, who were split into 7-team groups in a northern and southern division.
In all, 38 regular season games were played, which is 14 less than in a normal season. The two groups played 4 intergroup games against each opponent and then a home-and-away series against each team in the other group. This scheme led to plenty of exciting and important hockey and provided fans with an incredible sprint for playoff spots and home ice advantage, most important this season as every series would be played in a best-of-3 format.
Things were so close in the standings that Dusseldorf missed out on gaining 4th place in the north by one point and was only one regulation win away from tying Wolfsburg for third in the group. It got even wilder in the southern group as Schwenningen finished fifth, missing out on a playoff spot, although it actually had one more point than fourth place Straubing. This was due to Straubing having played one less game, as a match-up against Iserlohn had to be cancelled for Covid-related reasons. That meant that based on the percentage of points-per-game, Straubing snuck in, which was a rough hit for a Schwenningen team that had spent much of the season in a playoff spot.
Markedly, the league’s powerhouses all had stretches where their regular dominance was nowhere to be seen. Munich even suffered through an 8-3 loss at the hands of the Iserlohn Roosters, something that would prove fortelling once the postseason arrived. The league experienced its first big upset when Ingolstadt managed to knock Munich out in two games, needing a 5-4 overtime victory to get to the next round. Mannheim was the next Goliath to head out in Round 2, dropping Games 2 and 3 to Wolfsburg by a score of 2-1. This allowed Wolfsburg, which had gotten past lower saxony rival Bremerhaven in Round 1, to make it to the final.
Berlin’s “polar bears” didn’t have things any easier, getting upset at home in a 4-3 loss to Iserlohn to start the playoffs. Eisbaren bounced back with a 6-0 victory on the road and then decided Game 3 in its favour, 5-3. That brought them into a heavily anticipated series with Ingolstadt, which proved to be the thriller fans nationwide had hoped for. Despite a 4-3 loss in Game 1, Berlin proceeded to win 3-2 and then 4-2 to clear the path to the finals.
When all was said and done, both finalists went the three-game distance in each of their three playoff series, which can be seen as a statement on the parity of the league.
Berlin defenceman Ryan McKiernan was named the finals MVP. Armed with a wickedly powerful and accurate shot, the right-shooting defenceman tied for first overall in playoff scoring with seven goals and 10 points in nine games, tying him with teammates Matt White (7-3-10) and Noebels (1-9-10). In fact, he had as many goals in the playoffs as he had scored in 38 regular season games. Wolfsburg’s top playoff scorer ended up being Olimb, who collected a goal and eight points in nine games.
Seen over the entire season, former Philadelphia Flyers draft pick Noebels was named the DEL Player of the Year, putting up a truly unique stat line of six goals, 36 assists, and a +17 in 36 regular season games. However, that was only good for fifth overall in the DEL’s scoring race. The league’s top regular season scorer was also its third shortest, namely Joe Whitney of the Iserlohn Roosters, measuring in at a height of 170 cm. Whitney came to Iserlohn after several years in the SHL and quickly lit up the league to the tune of 21 goals and 45 points in 37 games. His linemate Casey Bailey, also previously in the SHL, finished third overall with 20 goals and 44 points in 37 games. To denote is that Iserlohn ultimately had one game cancelled in the regular season for Covid-related reasons, thus slightly pepping up their achievements.
The league’s Goalie of the Year was Joacim Eriksson of the Schwenningen Wild Wings while the Defenceman of the Year was Marcel Brandt of the Straubing Tigers, who had nine goals, 29 points, and a +18 rating in 37 games.
Considering the dark clouds hanging over hockey Germany in the fall, the league was nonetheless able to conduct a full and truly fascinating regular season that, with the exception of perhaps Krefeld Pinguine, featured a great deal of parity and jostling for playoff entry all the way to the last day of the regular season. Some had worried that the southern group was simply too top-heavy, what with reigning champions Mannheim and Munich in a group that also featured an Ingolstadt team that many saw as perhaps the league’s best team on paper.
Despite intergroup play that somewhat convincingly favoured contestants from the south, an all-north final couldn’t be disputed as an end-all statement to any such conjecture.
What’s very clear is that the league and the sport need its fans back in the buildings. It’s hard to believe another season like this one, as successfully as it was achieved by all participants pulling together accordingly, can be repeated. The sport is just too inherently connected to the presence of its passionate fans in Germany and the league needs this Covid-induced divorce to see an end by next fall.
Fortunately, recent developments are allowing hope to spring eternal towards that end.
In the meantime, you can bet your bottom dollar that Berlin is going to keep enjoying that record-setting 8th DEL title!