And good grief, this was as convincing a champion as you could imagine.
A long-time powerhouse in the league formerly known as the EBEL, Red Bull Salzburg is the league’s 2021/22 champion, its first championship since the league changed its name in the summer of 2020.
This year’s motto might as well have been “Sweep, sweep, sweep”, because that’s exactly what the team from the city of Mozart did all playoffs long. After having bowed out to KAC Klagenfurt in last spring’s final, the team put in a dominant season right from the beginning (finishing first overall with a 33-16 record) in gaining its first championship in six years, which is quite a drought for an organization that often boasts the league’s most bodacious budget.
This Karl Nedved Trophy is the club’s first, but in total its seventh championship in Austria’s highest league and the celebration, which took place on the road just southwest of Budapest, sounded every bit as if it were conducted right in Salzburg. Well, if you judge by the decibel level in the arena. Plenty of the over 3,000 attendees made the trip to the home rink of Fehervar AV19.
As the evening kicked off, Fehervar’s back was against the wall, but the team sure didn’t look like it was going to accept defeat on this evening. The team came out like gangbusters and pressured Salzburg for much of the first period. A goal by Balint Magosi in the 8th minute of play brought the building to eruption and looked like it might be a sign of things to come, as the team kept the pressure going, obviously energized by the tally. Fehervar would go on to outshoot Salzburg 14-5 in the first period.
But as is often the case when a team can’t make optimal use of its opportunities, an unfortunate goal against usually rears its ugly head soon thereafter. In the 16th minute of play, defenseman Mike Dalhuisen was able to tie things up, although it looked like captain Thomas Raffl may have gotten a piece of the shot on the way in. One way or another, this dimmed the high spirits of the opponent heading into the first intermission. Salzburg had clearly caught itself and recharged because it entered the second period looking like a whole other outfit. Eventually outshooting Fehervar 15-4, the Red Bulls jumped out into the lead in the 33rd minute of play when Raffl collected his fifth official goal of the playoffs on a beautiful between-the-legs shot from a near impossible angle.
Alas, this would eventually be the game’s game-winning goal.
The 3,260 people in attendance would witness a Salzburg team dominate the third period with another 15-4 shot count and slowly, but surely squeeze the life out of the opponent, which itself had finished the regular season in third place with a 27-20 record. Former NHL coach Kevin Constantine ultimately pulled goalie Rasmus Tirronen with a minute and a half to go, but to no avail as defenseman TJ Brennan stole the puck from an opponent deep in Salzburg’s zone, turned around, and launched an ice-length shot into the empty net just 15 seconds later.
That would prove to seal the deal for the league’s second ever champion as Fehervar couldn’t muster together any answer in the waning moments of the game.
Elated, the team stormed the ice as the final buzzer went off, gathering together rather controllably around their goalie, in their zone, right in front of the stadium section that is allotted to the fans of the guest team. In this case, to the fans of the new champion who would spend the next hour celebrating in song and sound with their newly crowned champs.
The path to the titleWith both the KAC and Orli Znojmo deciding their pre-playoff series 2-0, albeit on the strength of three total overtime games, the league’s top eight regular season teams according to point totals faced off in the playoffs. The first round saw Fehervar sweep Pustertal convincingly while Salzburg swept Znojmo, with not one game ending with a goal difference of more than two. In fact, two games ended with a one-goal difference while the initial 3-1 victory featured an empty net goal for Salzburg in the waning moments, thus painting a much different picture of how close that series actually was.
The other two series went the distance. Vienna needed a tight 3-2 victory at home in Game 7 to defeat reigning champion Klagenfurt while Villach, which finished second overall in the regular season, had its hands full against Olimpija Ljubljana. The series featured several barn burners and in all, the seven games featured a grand total of 61 goals, making it by far the highest scoring series in the playoffs.
This would go on to have a clear effect on what went down in the second round, when Vienna got swept and Fehervar only needed five games to knock off Villach. In general, there was little gas in the tank after the taxing seven game series and the well-rested Salzburg and Fehervar made prime use of their time off in preparing for their opponents. Salzburg did need overtime to defeat Vienna in Game 2, but overall, Vienna only managed to score four goals in the series, unable to find an answer to Salzburg’s suffocating gameplan. Villach did scratch up a tough 3-2 overtime victory in Game 1 of their series, but Fehervar was able to drown out their attack throughout the next four games, even if the 5-4 OT victory in Game 4 saw Villach charge back from a 3-0 deficit to push the game to overtime.
That all led to a final that pitted two teams that had gone a combined 16-1 on their way to the championship. Game 1 ended up being a battle for the ages. Tied 1-1 already in the 11th minute of play, the game would remain that way until forward Danjo Leonhardt popped in a shot in the second overtime, the game’s 85th minute of play to be exact, preventing what would have been Salzburg’s first playoff defeat.
Things were almost just as tight in Game 2 until Brian Lebler scored his second goal of the game in the 55th minute to break a 3-3 tie. Playoff top scorer Peter Schneider would add an empty-netter minutes later, his second marker of the game, to give Salzburg a 5-3 victory. Game 3 proved to be every bit as tight and found itself tied 1-1 in final minutes of the third period. Jan-Michael Jarvinen then broke the hearts of every Fehervar fan out there with his even-strength goal in the 59th minute of play.
That had the Hungarians on the ropes and the rest is now history.
Top dogsWhen you win a championship without a single loss in three rounds, it’s mighty hard to have a Playoff MVP be anything but your goalie. And that proved true for Atte Tolvanen, who went 8-0 with a 1.16 goals against average and insane 95.2 save percentage. That came on the heels of a regular season that saw him go 18-9 with a 1.96 GAA and 92.4%, including four shutouts.
“When I came here mid-season, I could immediately tell we had something very special going on here,” Tolvanen stated in his post-game interview.
That gut feeling certainly proved to be correct.
His teammate Peter Schneider was named the league’s overall MVP for the 21-22 season, an honour he also earned while playing for the Vienna Capitals in the 18-19 season. After going 28-24-52 with a +19 in 45 regular season contests, Schneider continued to lead his team in scoring throughout the playoffs with 4-8-12 and a +6 in 12 games, until Raffl took over the scoring lead in tonight’s final game. For Fehervar, the top line duo of Anze Kuralt and Jari Hanos, who has spent much of his career in Sweden, were the team’s offensive motor. They finished 4th and 7th in overall league scoring respectively, with Kuralt collecting 59 points and a +28 in 60 games while Hanos had a respectable 56 points and +31 in 49 games.
Villach’s John Hughes finished first overall in league scoring, going 20-46-66 in 55 total games. His assist total was the best of any player in the league. After finishing 6th overall in the regular season, he put things into overdrive in the playoffs with two goals and 17 points in just 10 games. His linemate Scott Kosmachuk didn’t finish far behind, sliding in at third overall with (a league best) 33 goals and 63 points in 58 overall games. Salzburg’s TJ Brennan was far and away the league’s most effective offensive defenseman with 27 goals and 59 points in 60 games. His +45 also topped the league, clearly showing that his collection of points wasn’t purely the result of any expected power play efficiency.
The league also named Villach’s Benjamin Lanzinger the “Youngstar of the Year”. Having just turned 22 in January, Lanzinger totalled 14 goals and 27 points in 51 games.
The nitty grittyThe ICEHL, which stands for International Central European Hockey League, truly is about the most multicultural league you’ll find anywhere. Although the majority of the teams hail from Austria, there are no less than one participating club from Czechia, Hungary, Italy, and Slovenia.
The ICEHL was able to welcome Pustertal Bruneck (Italy) and Olimpija Ljubljana (Slovenia) this season and the two promptly finished fifth and sixth overall in the standings respectively, earning an automatic bye to the playoffs. Each had played one circuit below the season before in the Alps Hockey League, but both are long since established clubs with a strong history in the sport.
This season, like the two before it, was once again overshadowed by the effects of Covid, leading every team in the league to have to postpone and ultimately cancel games. In fact, not every team played the same number of games, although no team played less than 46 and none more than 49. The schedule had originally intended for a 52-game season. Playoff positioning was then determined by the points-per-game average of each team, thus explaining why Pustertal and Ljubljana found themselves in the top six despite having fewer points than Znojmo and the KAC, which finished 7th and 8th in the standings, respectively.
Essential for the league was that all teams generally allowed for live attendance with regulations varying depending on national decrees. Very promising in light thereof was that Dornbirn, which finished 13th overall in the standings, was last in attendance with an average of 1,008 attendees per game. Six teams were able to boast an attendance of over 1,600 per game. However, the Vienna Capitals were the sole team to rake in over 2,000 per game with an official total of 2,145. What must be taken into account here is that some dates this season featured very limited numbers permitted into the arenas and those games are part of this overall stat, thus meaning the average attendance size was much larger in games where more people were permitted in the rink.
All in all, there are few complaints of this initial development in light of what length Covid has gone in recent years to keeping people out of stadiums. The hope now is that the worst is behind us and attending hockey games will become a much more common part of people’s lives as soon as next season.