Playing in front of over 1,600 spectators, Asiago successfully completed a thriller for the ages, pulling out a 2-1 Game 5 victory in the league that includes the second-tier teams from Austria as well as teams from Italy and Slovenia.
You always want to think that a championship series takes place between two teams that are truly the creme de la creme of a league. For the Alps Hockey League this year, that was 100 per cent the case.
After making their way to the finals last season only to be swept by Olimpija Ljubljana, which now plays its hockey one tier higher in the ICEHL, Asiago played a dominating regular season and found itself not only in the finals again, but once again against a team from Slovenia, Acroni Jesenice. Making it to the finals has been a force of habit for the club from the hockey-crazy Italian town not too far away from Venice. It won the title in the 2017/18 season and has continued to make the finals every season with the exception of the 2018/19 season.
The finals thus pitted Asiago and Jesenice against each other, which finished 1st and 2nd in the standings. They had faced each other three times in the regular season, with Asiago having won the first two. A fourth contest was cancelled and could never be rescheduled.
How close and comparable the teams are, was verified in about as tight of finals series as one could imagine heading into Game 5 in Asiago, meaning the series was going the distance. As opposed to a few of the other games in the series, it took a good 29 minutes of back-and-forth action for a team to dent the scoreboard, in this case the home team. Asiago took what looked like could be defining lead when Enrico Miglioranzi scored off a Marek Vankus pass. For Miglioranzi, it was his second playoff goal in 10 games, the same number he played in during the regular season.
Jesenice was then able to find a quick solution. In fact, Gasper Glavic was able to tie things up just 40 seconds later. A bit of a shock for the hometown team, which had kept the opposition at bay for so long, despite having back-up Luca Stevan in goal. For Stevan, it was only his second game of playoff action, and sixth game all season long. The tie would stand until the end of the second period despite Asiago outshooting Jesenice 31-18.
The 3rd period would see much of the same, which Asiago controlling the momentum and ultimately outshooting Jesenice 13-5. Alas, Jesenice goalie Oscar Froberg continued to stand on his head. It looked like it may have all had its meaning when Asiago went shorthanded in the 56th minute of play, as Michele Marchetti headed off the ice for tripping. With the pressure clearly on and a decisive moment hanging in the air, Asiago was able to kill off the penalty and maintain a tie that looked like the game to end as tight a series as possible was going to have to be decided in overtime.
But those 44 shots Asiago took ultimately chipped away at their opponent. With only 90 seconds left in the game, third line right wing Giordano Finoro, who only just joined the team in January, would become the hero of ice hockey Italy. On yet another feed from Vanuk, the unexpected goal sent the crowd into a frenzy. The waning moments of the game felt like an eternity as a gassed out Jesenice side frantically attempted to even things up, but to no avail.
Asiago is back on top!
The path to the finalsA novum of sorts, even in European leagues, the pre-playoffs consisted of eight teams in this league consisting of 17 teams. For Cortina, Wipptal, and Zell am See, victory was assured in just two of three possible games, ending the seasons for Linz, Fassa, and the Red Bull Juniors prematurely. Cortina had little problem with Linz, but the other two series saw three of the four games decided by a single goal difference. In the fourth series, Gherdeina required all three games to defeat Bregenzerwald and each victory in the series was by just one goal difference.
With all eight playoff contestants determined, the series switched to Best-of-Five for the remainder of the season.
Asiago made quick work of Wipptal in three high-scoring affairs, managing to score 20 goals in the three contests. The three remaining series went the distance. Jesenice blew a 2-0 series lead against Gherdeina and required a tight 2-1 home victory in Game 5 to move on. Ritten defeated fellow Italian rival Cortina despite being behind in the series 2-0 to kick things off, Shutouts in games 3 and 4 paved the way to a 5-1 victory in Game 5. Elsewhere, Lustenau put Zell am See away in Game 5 with a 3-1 victory. It was the only game that wasn’t decided by a single goal, showing just how evenly matched the opponents were.
By the semi-finals, it was clear just which teams were wearing down from a long season. Several tight games were chalked up by Lustenau (against Asiago) and Ritten (against Jesenice), including 3-2 OT victory Asiago needed to finish off Lustenau and the 5-4 OT victory Jesenice needed to put an end to Ritten. Still, a 5-0 win by Asiago and a 6-0 victory by Jesenice along the way were very telling in which offensive machines just weren’t going to go silent for any three games at a time.
This all paved the way for a final that featured the regular season’s top two clubs, with Jesenice having topped things in the league’s preliminary round and Asiago having decided the master round in its favour. As opposed to last year’s final, which saw Olimpija Ljubljana disperse of Asiago in three straight, the Italians were going to have none of that against a renewed opponent of Slovenian origin.
Although the first 29 minutes of Game 1 were reminiscent of a chess match, and Jasa Jenko broke the scoreless tie with his tally in the 30th minute of play, Asiago’s Anthony Salinitri tied things up just seven minutes later. Lorenzo Casetti gave Asiago the lead not one whole minute later and the death knell would be delivered by Jose Antonio Magnabosco in the 44th minute of play. Cameron Ginnetti was able to add an empty-netter just 17 seconds before the game concluded, giving the Italians a clear victory in Game 1.
As decisive as the first game was, Jesenice had clearly warmed up and gotten their gameplan back together for Game 2. Scoring wise, the game went back and forth over the first 21 minutes, with Jesenice setting the tone at home and Asiago managing to tie things up shortly thereafter. This all changed in the 38th minute of play when Asiago’s Marchetti struck to give the Italians their first lead of the game. It lasted until the 53rd minute of play when unsuspecting hero Luka Scap, a defensive defenseman who had only scored once all season, took a shot that found its way behind goaltender Vallini Gianluca. The 3-3 score would last into overtime when the game was decided already after 49 seconds of play when Jesperi Viikila was set up by Eetu Elo, who had also assisted on Scap’s goal, for the game-winner.
This seemed to be the fire the team needed heading back to Asiago. Game 3 was another incredibly tight affair and Andraz Zibelski’s goal for Jesenice in the 21st minute of play was countered by Michele Stevan’s tally just 1:15 later for Asiago. The 1-1 tie would hold all the way until the 55th minute of play when Jenko took things into his own hands scoring the unassisted 2-1 goal. Two empty-netters in the last two minutes of play, both by Glavic, gave Jesenice a 4-1 victory and meant that Game 4 would be the match ball.
Game 4 took place in front of a packed, but not sold out, Sportni Park Podmezakala, which features a capacity of 5,800 spectators. It didn’t take long for the guests, fighting for their sporting lives, to get on the board in the 7th minute of play when defenseman Gabriele Panini scored his first goal of the playoffs. Roughly five minutes later, Miha Logar, another defenseman, tied things up with his third marker of the playoffs. Roughly 10 minutes after that, in the 21st minute of play, little tyke Elo scored his fifth goal, and 15th point of the playoffs, to put Jesenice back in a familiar spot in the series, namely the lead. Both goals had been assisted by the team’s star center and second best scorer Viikila.
Ten minutes later, Marchetti took a beautiful pass from Steven Iacobellis while stationed all alone in the high slot and directed a one-timer past Froberg to even things up. It appeared to sway the tide a bit for Asiago, which continued to have the better of the opportunities until it scored in the 54th minute of play. Star center Salinitri converted on a pass from Magnabosco to give Asiago its second lead of the night. With time winding down, Jesenice pulled their goalie, and two empty-netters were scored, albeit the first was deemed to be offsides. A few moments afterwards, it was Magnabosco who caught up to a puck fished high out of his zone and floated down the slot, tapping it in for the 4-2 victory.
And everything would return to Asiago for the all-decisive Game 5.
Stats that impressAfter leading the playoffs in scoring with Olimpija last season, Eric Pance led the entire league in scoring this season with 81 points in 49 total games. This put him nine points ahead of last season’s top point getter Brad McGowan of Gherdeina, who was second overall in league goal-scoring with 32 goals. His feat was achieved in 46 games.
Asiago’s top point getters were Anthony Salinitri and Steven Iacobellis, both with 60 points, albeit Salinitri needed 49 games for that total while Iacobellis achieved it in 40. These two did turn things on when they were most important, finishing second and third in playoff scoring, Salinitri’s 11 goals in 10 games topping that statistic handily. Pance’s teammate Eetu Elo led all playoff scorers with 16 points in 13 games.
Overall, Salinitri’s 32 markers would lead the league.
Interestingly, after Ljubljana featured over a half dozen players who racked up a +40 or better last season, Red Bull Juniors linemates Rasmus Lahnaviik and Luca Auer topped the charts this year with a +38 and +37 respectively. Auer technically tied Jesenice defenceman Nejc Stojan in this statistic.
The top scorer among defensemen was Frederik Widen of Zell am See with seven goals and 47 points in just as many games. He was very closely followed by Zachary Osburn of Ritten, who contributed 15 goals and 46 points in 47 games as well.
Development still the keywordThe AlpsHL continues to be a successful minor league outfit of no less than great cultural interest throughout Austria, Italy, and Slovenia. This year saw a number of teams end up having games cancelled in the preliminary round mainly due to Covid, meaning the standings had to be determined by points-per-game statistics. The Red Bull Juniors, probably due in good part to the team taking a long break during the scheduled World Juniors period of preparation and tournament, were the only team to play all 32 games. EC Bregenzerwald played the fewest with 24. Nonetheless, the league only saw one game cancelled for the entirety of the master and two qualification rounds.
Attendance statistics left much to be desired, but when compared to what took place in previous seasons, everyone was just happy that a somewhat regular attendance was even possible throughout much of the season, although several phases saw restrictions inserted for Covid-related reasons. Unsurprisingly, the juniors club participants for Salzburg, Vienna, and Klagenfurt had the lowest average attendance, while Zell am See led the league with an average of 648 spectators per game. Again, these stats are also taking those home dates into consideration where restrictions were in place. And for the finals, both Asiago and Jesenice were registering attendance numbers in the thousands for their home dates.
It once again bears denoting that the league continues to feature a truly unique contestant in the Red Bull Academy Juniors. The team is technically a U23 team, but this year’s squad only hosted five players over the age of 20. Many of the youngsters on the team, primarily from Austria and Germany, are carefully watched by the NHL scouting community and participate for their country’s U20 and U18 teams at world championships.
To conclude, the league currently has 16 teams lined up for next season. However, two completely new teams, Unterland Cavaliers (ITA) and Slavija Ljubljana (SLO), have applied to participate next season. Whether or not they meet all criteria will be determined by May 10th.