Indeed, the “Polar Bears” are once again the champion of the DEL, taking their second straight title. After winning it all in last year’s compressed schedule and in front of an empty building, this year’s championship was garnered in a packed house on the road, but with several hundred fans of the team occupying an entire corner of Munich’s Olympic Ice Hall.
When the final buzzer sounded off, the team – which had been jumping up and down on the bench for a while in anticipation – stormed the ice to celebrate its goalie.
“I can’t describe this. It’s just unbelievable. This team has battled the whole year long. I am incredibly proud of them,” declared Eisbaren coach Serge Aubin, the author of these two straight championships, who kicked off his career coaching the Hamburg Freezers in the 2015-16 season.
Like his team’s opponent, which found no way past Olympic participant goaltender Matthias Niederberger in Wednesday night’s all-decisive 5-0 victory, Aubin had to single out his star goalie, “That was probably the best game I’ve ever seen him play.”
Munich’s legendary coach Don Jackson could only reiterate this point: “Niederberger was clearly the difference in tonight’s game. No doubt about it.” The irony in the statement will not go unnoticed by those picked up on the late-season news that Niederberger will be playing for Munich next season. As such, his performance tonight in Bavaria’s capital gave Red Bull fans a glimpse of what they can look forward to.
One player who knows all about what it takes to win year to year is captain Frank Hordler, who can now call himself a nine-time DEL champion, all of which have come with Berlin. He was also this year’s DEL Playoff MVP. He’s been at it for so long now that he actually had a 17-year old son representing Germany at the recent U18 World Championships hosted by the German towns of Kaufbeuren and Landshut.
“Everyone who is on the ice knows what kind of a sacrifice this is. And that’s something everyone on the team understands. It’s something we’ll never forget. That’s the way it’s been with every final I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of and with every one of the championships. Each one is a new chapter and creates new memories,” said the captain, who also indicated he’d be right back at it come August, when camp begins.
“What should I say about Hordler. He’s a legend. I don’t know how big that trophy shelf of his is at home, but I think he’s going to have to start adding to it”, said Marcel Noebels, one of the team’s top regular and post-season scorers.
Even the team’s general manager Stephane Richer was happy to chime in on his captain: “Frankie is absolutely amazing. He’s the mayor of Berlin. He is one of the best German players who has ever played at Germany’s top level.”
Top scorer Matt White led the team in regular and post-season scoring, while also wrapping up the day with a hat trick. “I don’t care about the goals, as long as we win, “ he said. “Whether it be on the road or at home. We’re just happy to win this and end this season like this. There was no panic on the bench at any time - and we ended up winning.”
When asked if he’s much of party guy in light of the ensuing celebration, he responded with a snicker, “I will be tonight!”
“They’ve earned this. My compliment. They’ve done everything necessary to win this. The were disciplined, hard-working, ready to sacrifice... They’ve all done what they needed to do to win this championship,” pointed out Richer, who’s in-season acquisitions of Frans Nielsen, Johan Sodergran, and Dominik Bokk all proved crucial in winning this year’s championship. “Our cooperation with the LA Kings has helped, but all of our decisions are made together with management and the coaching staff. And we got it right this year.”
On a sheet of ice filled with golden glitter, the team huddled together in front of its loyal fans who, after singing a clearly very well-practiced chant of devotion, got the celebration going with a boom as the popping of corks and passing of the chalice took flight.
Berlining it once againGame 4 began with a bang as the Red Bull were able to get on the board halfway through the first period. Upon further review, Berlin goaltender Niederberger was indeed hindered by goal-crease interference and the goal was disallowed. As often takes place in such situations, it didn’t take long for captain Hordler to spring forward White on a partial breakaway, who then adeptly roofed the puck over Munich goalie Henrik Haukeland’s left shoulder. For Munich, the goal seemed to take the wind out of the sails, as the building became a lot quieter.
The tight-checking game continued in the second period and there was no telling where the game would go until former Danish NHLer Nielsen tapped in a wonderful pass from White to make it 2-0 in the 25th minute of play. Thanks to a slapshot goal by Leo Pforderl one minute later and a power play, net-front tip-in by White, Berlin entered the third period of play with a commanding 4-0 lead.
Despite the expected push from Munich in the third period, the Red Bulls couldn’t get anything cooking. Coach Jackson then pulled his goalie three and a half minutes before the end of play and although his team was able to create some pressure from there on out, White would go on to zap an empty-net goal in with just 10 seconds left on the clock, thus completing his hattrick and 4-point night.
Although the series featured the league’s top two teams, Berlin managed to shutout Munich twice in the finals and only allowed a total of six goals against over four games.
The path to the finalsThe spring has been full of surprises and exciting events. Even the pre-playoffs led to surprising playoff contestants when the 10th ranked Cologne Sharks knocked off the Ingolstadt Panthers in two straight. Of course, Ingolstadt had lost its top three defensemen shortly before the playoffs and this had an effect. Meanwhile, Dusseldorf played an absolutely thrilling series against Nuremberg that required a tight Game 3 to get the men for the Rhine River into the top eight.
At this point, things started getting back to normal in comparison with the 2020-21 season, in which all series were conducted in a best-of-three format. Now it became a best-of-five, even if that too was different than in the many years where series were of a best-of-seven format. Naturally, the plethora of regular season breaks and postponements created by bouts with Covid played a significant role in this, despite the fact that the league decided to carry on with games throughout the Olympics in China. The regular season could only be thoroughly completed by teams often playing with no more than three lines, call-ups from the juniors or affiliates included. Several teams even played a couple of contests with only 10 skaters. As such, three rounds of Best-of-Five play was a dreamy achievement.
Interestingly, Berlin was the only one of the league’s favourites not to go through a deep slump at some point. The team was near at or near the top of the standings the whole season, having spent most of this calendar year in first place. Other favourites such as final contestant Munich and Mannheim went through at least one considerable losing streak and spent the final weeks of the season just solidifying a spot in the top six. Third place Wolfsburg and fourth place Straubing were somewhat pleasant surprises and belonged to the most consistent teams in the league, which at least gave them home ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
Alas, there was little in the line of upsets in the first round. Berlin handily did away with Cologne in three games while both Mannheim (against Straubing) and Munich (against Dusseldorf) decided their series in four. Wolfsburg jumped out to a convincing two to nothing lead only to see the upstart men from the North Sea coast in Bremerhaven tie things up. A tight 2-0 victory in Game 5, including an empty-netter, got them into Round 2, but simply cost them too much energy and left several players injured. Munich then marched through Wolfsburg in a close, but ultimately dominating 3-0 manner while Berlin vs Mannheim went the distance, needing a fifth game that Berlin was able to decide for itself with a 3-0 shutout.
This brought the league to a final that most pundits felt was truly the battle of the DEL’s top two clubs, aside from the fact that they did actually finish first and second in the standings this season. Furthermore, both were relatively healthy. What did people nationwide up in arms is that Game 1 took place less than 24 hours after Game 5 of the Berlin vs. Mannheim series, giving Munich a clear advantage from a resting standpoint. Ultimately, Munich used that advantage, winning 4-3 in overtime, albeit coming back from a 3-0 deficit. DEL Defenseman of the Year Danny Redmond was able to rifle in a one-timer, his 4th of the playoffs, to secure the victory.
Game 2 saw a change in fortunes, as the road team Berlin was, itself, able to gain a 3-2 overtime victory thanks to a deadly wrister by Nielsen, an early season acquisition who had been playing for the Detroit Red Wings just last year. Game 3 then brought about another tight-checking game with few goals scored. In the 38th minute, Carolina Hurricanes prospect Bokk, tipped a shot from the point that went in, giving Berlin a 2-1 lead that it would hold for the rest of the game.
That brough the two finalists to what could be a decisive Game 4.
Top playersTied for the league lead in playoff scorer were Eisbaren Blaine Byron and White. The former topped the list with five goals and 14 points in 11 games while the latter had four goals and 14 points, albeit in the full 12 games of the postseason. That means that he was the league’s overall top scorer with 73 points in 66 total games.
Seen over the entire season, Riley Sheen of Bietigheim proved to be the big surprise in the DEL. Having played in the DEL2 last season and helping Bietigheim-Bissingen gain promotion, not a soul out there saw him making the impact he did, which has now earned him a contract in the Swedish SHL. He was named DEL Player of the Year and Forward of the Year, leading the league with 40 goals and second in regular season scoring with 64 points. The league’s top scorer was Jason Akeson of Straubing, who put up 24 goals and 68 points in his best ever DEL season. Last year’s top scorer, former Philadelphia Flyers draft pick Noebels, finished fifth overall in scoring with 20 goals and 56 points.
The league’s Goalie of the Year was Dustin Strahlmeier of the Wolfsburg Grizzlies while the Defenseman of the Year was Redmond of the Munich Red Bulls, who had 16 goals, 41 points, and a +19 rating in 37 games. He added another five goals and six points in 11 playoff games.
SynopsisNo doubt, this was a bounce-back year for the league. The majority of games could be completed and despite many bumps in the road, the regular season could be brought to a clean conclusion. The parity in the league was once again evident and although the three favourites coming into the season were indeed among the league’s top five regular season teams, two of which making it to the finals, several lower budget teams finished third and fourth while a handful of teams, including first-year club Bietigheim, were able to battle for 10th place right on up to the last weekend of the regular season.
For the first time in decades, the league has introduced promotion and relegation, and the Krefeld Penguins, despite stretches of strong play and serving a number of youths who established themselves at this level, will be relegated. If all goes as planned with the respective licensing, ex-DEL club Frankfurt Lions will replace Krefeld, having convincing won the DEL2 title by going 12-0 in the post-season.
From an attendance standpoint, the new season saw a good number of visitors in the arenas, which was a welcome site for a number of league officials and, of course, the players. However, numbers weren’t nearly that of pre-pandemic levels, albeit there were phases in the season where only a restricted number of people were allowed in the building. This said, Cologne led the way in attendance with an average of 6,679 people per game. This was followed by Mannheim and Berlin, both of which raked in slightly over 5,200 per game. Nevertheless, the worst attendance in the league was seen Wolfsburg (1,402) and Munich (1,460), the teams that finished 2nd and 3rd in the league. That means they lagged behind even the newest member to the league, which with an average attendance of 1,911 saw more than 450 more faces go through the turnstiles per home date.
In general, only Dusseldorf (4,338) and Augsburg (3,048) were, in addition to the top three mentioned above, able to pull an average of over 3,000 per home game. The league will surely be placing a good deal of summertime thought into how to increase attendance, something that admittedly may take place naturally if the threat of Covid as well as capacity restrictions imposed by federal and state governments have truly become a thing of the past.