A title defence has been a seldom fate in Switzerland’s National League in this millennium but coming back from 0-3 in a final series had never been achieved before EV Zug did it on Sunday.
It was the ending of a strong season for the “bulls” from Central Switzerland. Zug won the regular season ahead of Fribourg-Gotteron and the ZSC Lions Zurich. They then continued their playoff winning streak by eliminating HC Lugano in the quarter-finals and HC Davos in the semis, each time in just four games. That extended the playoff winning streak (including last season) to 12 games.
Then came the ZSC Lions Zurich, who created drama not only in the finals. In the quarter-finals against EHC Biel it was the Lions who came back from 0-2 and 2-3 to win in Game 7 before eliminating Fribourg-Gotteron in four games – the first three games all ended 3-2 in overtime.
The Lions finished Zug’s streak and built one on their own with nine consecutive victories. They were not the dominating team in their three one-goal wins against Zug but they showed more endurance and decided each of the first three games in the last period.
With the champagne and cigars ready in Zurich for Game 4 Zug eventually managed to convert their dominance into goals and to defend the lead until the end to win 4-1. Two days later Dario Simion’s hat trick led Zug to another 4-1 victory. In both games Zug fought back after ZSC forward Denis Malgin had opened the scoring.
The momentum seemed to switch but the Lions fought hard in Game 6 on home ice in what would be their last game at Hallenstadion after decades since the club will move out of the traditional multifunctional arena in the Oerlikon district and open its own arena in the Altstetten neighbourhood.
After a good start for Zug with a goal from Fabrice Herzog the Lions dominated the following two periods but couldn’t get the puck past Leonardo Genoni. A late PP goal from Gregory Hofmann sealed the 2-0 win and a 3-3 tie in the series.
“It’s an incredible feeling. Being 3-0 behind few people believed in us. But we knew that it had always been tight games, we had always been close,” Zug defenceman Samuel Kreis told Swiss broadcaster SRF on the ice. “If you earn a championship like that it’s deserved. We came closer together, put more pressure and [goalkeeper] Leo [Genoni] played incredibly.”
After six games of drama the series basically started from scratch and was to be decided in one game in Zug. Justin Azevedo opened the scoring after 62 seconds for the Lions but Zug found back in the game with two goals from Simion and one from Herzog. Leonardo Genoni, the goalie who grew up next to Zurich in a suburb famous for its chocolate factory, was again strong in the net with 27 saves en route to his seventh gold medal he won either with Davos, Bern or Zug. And this one couldn’t be sweeter.
“The character of the team is to always believe. It wasn’t easy in this series but we always stayed positive. It was great leadership from everybody from A to Z. In the end we were strong in our heads,” Hofmann said in a TV interview after the game.
“It was great to celebrate with the fans this time. They deserved it after difficult years with Covid. Now we have full house, Game 7, there’s no better feeling.”
Opposed to the year before the National League was able to run the season without imposed capacity restrictions. The clubs had attendance losses during the winter when entry to events was restricted to people with a Covid vaccination or recovery certificate but for the final series the arenas were full. 62,400 spectators were counted in the seven games and thousands of additional fans watched from the public viewing sites outside of Zug’s Bossard Arena as well as inside Hallenstadion in Zurich.
The series between Zug and Zurich, about a half-hour car or train ride from each other, offered intriguing clashes. The Czech Kovar brothers found themselves at different ends with forward Jan having the upper hand against his brother and ZSC goalie Jakub. The trophies remain unevenly split with his fifth national championship (1 CZE, 2 RUS, 2 SUI) while Jakub’s wait continues after this season and a touching moment of hugging between the brothers after the game.
It was also a clash between Scandinavian coaches who had moved to Switzerland a few years ago. The ZSC Lions Zurich wanted to build a dynasty with Rikard Gronborg, who came with a winning resume of three IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship titles (two of them in a final against Switzerland). At the other end of the celebrity scale was Dan Tangnes, who by many was considered a nobody when Zug announced him as head coach in 2018. The Norwegian moved to Zug after only three years of top-level experience as a head coach with Linkoping in Sweden. But in Zug he fulfilled the expectation. He integrated younger players from the own academy into a mix with players of national team level that were lured to Zug, led the team to its second championship in history and its first in 23 years in 2021 and now to another championship. Nobody calls him a nobody anymore in Swiss hockey.
More teams and more imports in 2022/2023The battle for the trophy was a much tighter one not only in the playoffs but also in the standings compared to last year when Zug won the regular season with a cushion of 27 points. And the top spots included a team that hardly anybody expected. The SC Rapperswil-Jona Lakers from a small town at the other end of Lake Zurich were temporarily leading the league and finished the regular season in fourth place before being ousted in the quarter-finals by HC Davos, fifth in the regular season but taking advantage from its vast playoff experience in the series.
At the bottom end regular champion SC Bern was disappointing by missing the playoffs. After a ninth-place finish one year ago the team didn’t show the expected improvement and in the last round lost its place in the pre-playoffs to HC Ambri-Piotta and moved down to 11th place.
With relegation suspended during the two years of pandemic the season was played with 13 teams with HC Ajoie being promoted in 2021. The team from the canton of Jura finished expectedly in last place but managed to earn eight wins and give opponents a hard time in the remote town of Porrentruy at their small but loud rink.
For next season the National League will for the first time be played with 14 clubs. EHC Kloten beat EHC Olten in five games for the title of the second-tier league and to return to the National League.
It will not be the only change. The league will operate more independently in a separate corporation and also decided to open up the rigid import rules although not as much as originally considered by the clubs following protests within the Swiss hockey family. The rule will be to allow six import players per team and game (up from four) also as a result of the increase in teams.
The league will also not increase the number of 14 teams any further. For the new season a promotion and relegation system will be reintroduced with the weakest team after the regular season and playout series playing a best-of-seven series against the champion of the second-tier Swiss League if that club applies for promotion and fulfils the criteria for the top league.