If one team approaches a game with a sense of purpose and the other not so much, which team is going to win? The correct answer: ZSC Lions.
In less than a year, the Swiss team has won over European hockey fans by first advancing to the final of the Champions League, a cup tournament for European club champions, and then beating the heavy favorite Metallurg Magnitogorsk of Russia twice in the two-game final.
This week, the ZSC Lions played the Chicago Blackhawks in the Victoria Cup, a matchup between the European champion and a challenger from the NHL. The Blackhawks beat the Swiss champions, HC Davos, 9-2 the night before, a score that may have lulled the Hawks into thinking the game against the Lions would be a nice walk along the Schanzengraben promenade in downtown Zurich.
But for the Lions, it was a matter of pride, and pride can make men do interesting things, like throw themselves in front of pucks.
“I haven’t seen our guys block this many shots in years,” said veteran goaltender Ari Sulander after the game. Sulander himself made 34 saves in the Lions’ 2-1 win.
“We have no excuses, they were just better and deserved to win,” said Blackhawks goaltender Cristobal Huet. “They played better than us and wanted it more than us. The lesson for us is that we’re going to have to work hard if we want to be successful.”
For Huet, who played four years in the Swiss league at the turn of the century, the loss meant a little more than for the other Hawks who may not have been aware of how badly a European team wanted to beat the NHLers.
“I think last night’s game (against Davos) gave a false impression of the difference between the leagues and tonight we played against a very well organized and experienced team; that’s why they’re the European champion,” he said.
The Lions ranked the win high on their list of accomplishments.
“I would like to win a medal at the Olympics, or the World Championship, but right now I’m just happy,” said Ryan Gardner, a Canadian-born forward.
“We have a long season ahead of us. Last season, everybody wanted to beat us because we won the Champions Hockey League and now they surely want to beat the team that beat the Chicago Blackhawks.”
In May, thousands of people gathered in downtown Jyväskylä to celebrate JyP, Finnish champions for the first time in club history.
However, the team got off to a worse start than any other reigning Finnish champion in the past 25 years, winning just one of its first eight games. Some call it championship hangover, others are pointing to a trade where they patched up their finances by selling first-line center Jarkko Immonen to Ak Bars Kazan of the Kontinental League.
Immonen finished second in league scoring last season with 64 points in 58 games and his linemates, Antti Virtanen and Tuomas Pihlman, finished fifth and 11th. This season, Virtanen and Pihlman have both collected four points in eight games.
This week, JyP announced the signing of Steve Kariya, who finished seventh in league scoring last season with HPK. Kariya won the scoring title with Ilves in 2005 and after playing the following season with Espoo Blues, Kariya is now with his fourth Finnish SM-Liiga team.
OLD TIME HOCKEY
Djurgården is sometimes called the pride of Stockholm, but the hockey club hasn’t really lived up to that reputation in recent years. It’s only made the playoffs once since 2004-05 – and even then it was ousted in the first round of the 2008 post-season.
This season, the fans have reason to be hopeful. The team had an excellent pre-season, winning the Nordic Trophy, a tournament for the top Swedish teams, while their young players have shown they can play at the highest level.
Andreas Engqvist, Jacob Josefsson and Marcus Kruger have combined for 17 points in four games, with Kruger collecting nine.
Mostly, though, the fans are hopeful thanks to the return of Hardy Nilsson, former head coach of Team Sweden and the man who coached Djurgården to back-to-back championships in 2000 and 2001.
The team is 2-1-1 in its first four games and for now, that’d be good enough for the playoffs.
WHERE DID THE NHL BUZZ GO?
The NHL has rolled through Europe this week, with four teams playing eight exhibition games over six days in five different cities. However, high ticket prices, a weak economy and a lack of big European superstars making the homecoming trip has made it tough for organizers to pack the arenas.
Only one, the Detroit Red Wings game against Farjestad in Karlstad, has been a sellout. When the St. Louis Blues played Linkoping on Tuesday, only 4,900 tickets were sold in an arena with a capacity of 8,500. In Helsinki’s exhibition game between local Jokerit and the Florida Panthers, the 13,000-seat Hartwall Arena was only half full.
And that’s if you’re an optimist.
Eye on Europe will be featured on THN.com every Friday throughout the season. Risto Pakarinen is a Finnish freelance writer, based in Stockholm, Sweden who also writes for NHL.com and IIHF.com. When not writing about European hockey on THN, he’s probably writing about hockey at ristopakarinen.com/hockey as Puckarinen.
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