Odd top five this Tuesday morning in the SM-Liiga. Gotta love it though: the Season of the Underdogs. Kärpät are lower than normal but figure as the odd man in an otherwise unfamiliar picture compared to what the league has gotten us accustomed to over the past few years. And all the better for that.
Meanwhile, our Tampere teams hover in the qualification zone, the limbo of the league. Tappara was playing HPK on Nelonen this Saturday and for as much as I had the leisure to see, they put up a good effort. Ok, that was only the second period, when they were up 3-0 and seemed to be dominating all aspects of the game. Great puck moving, overall game control and scoring chances galore. That was until my daughter shut the TV, she cannot stand anything else than Muumipeikko and his bunch on the idiot box, can't blame her and I love her for that.
They managed to blow their lead in order to make it interesting for the crowd one would guess, but still carried on to a narrow victory over Hämeenlinna's diminished squad. Highlights here, including the lightning fast solo effort of Steve Saviano, bloody effective! By the way, I have to point out that this was Tappara's first victory without the help of André Benoit on the scoring sheet. About time this team stops relying on French Canadians to do all the scoring, hehe.
HPK looks - on paper at least - like they've weathered a heavy storm over the summer that has forced a great deal of their roster's talent to jump over board. 5 of their top 7 players points-wise vanished in the mist. Leino dominates with Jokerit now while reports have been filed with the Police on the disappearance of Hassinen, Maenpää and Pihlström and light should be shed soon enough. Unreliable sources tell me the dragging of Ahvenistonjärvi turned only unlinkable evidence such as a blood encrusted Sälibandy stick and a keychain sporting the logo Kemi Über Alles. Their top goal scorer from last season, Janne Lahti, has flown over the Atlantic and under the radar of Montreal's training camp evaluators, which got him to land on the Calder Cup Champions Hamilton Bulldogs' roster.
Holes have been plucked of course, most notably by the addition of seasoned veteran Turkulainen Kai Nurminen. I was most shocked by his defection from his home team after so many years of loyal services as the face of the franchise. (Ok, as the nose of the franchise, while Kiprosoff has filled the duties of mullet of the franchise with great panache.) Nurminen has donned the Golden Helmet on many outings for TPS and was seen as a leader at least from what I have seen on the three occasions I have had the chance to see him play live, sitting in the first row behind the player's bench. He could be a dominating player at times and something must have gone haywire with TeePSi for the 38 year old to pack his bags and immigrate to Hämeenlinna. If anyone has more info on the subject, feel free to enlighten us through the comments section.
The one major overhaul that has taken place with HPK is not amongst the roster though, but rather behind the bench with the exile of Kalevi Numminen trophy winner Jukka Jalonen toward the greener pastures of the Leijonat squad where he is the heir apparent to Ontarian Doug Shedden as head coach. Jalonen used to run a tight ship in Hämeenlinna, with a style I would dare compare to Hall of Famer and two times Jack Adams winner Jacques Lemaire who is coaching in Hockey State, USA, at the moment. Efficient, hard-working, meticulous and mind crushingly boring defensive hockey. No emphasis put on a talented roster but rather on puck dumping, trap practising, hermetical zone defense. Can't argue with results though with HPK winning the title two years back with no flash whatsoever in the lineup (with the exception of dwarf-wonder Jukka Voutilainen, the Finnish Martin Saint-Louis, playing with a stick the size of his ambitions). Now I have been told that Matti Alatalo draws good praise already at the helm but results will have to come soon and the first solution could be to get reinforcements to pad the team in front of Chiodo and Lassila.
Ilves fared good over the weekend also and Kontiola asserts himself as the man of the grand occasions, helping his team beat the Suburban Blues to the ground somewhere in the God-forsaken faraway woods of Espoo.
In quite less SM-Liiga related news, last week saw an interesting little competition took place in Salzburg, Austria between four teams of uneven levels. The stacked by Austrian standards hosts Red Bull Salzburg EC, the Swiss powerhouse HC Davos, HC Färjestads from the next country left and the team formerly owned by Uncle Buck/John Candy, from the City of Angels, the Kings. The results are fairly irrelevant, no huge surprise apart from the 3-0 lead that the hosts, who seemed under the effect of Tyrone's fabled Red Balls, took over the Kings in their first match-up. This was quickly solved by future all-star and neighbourhood boy Anže Kopitar from down the road a little over 100km South East over the Slovenian border with a hat trick that left no doubt on the kid's potential.
What was interesting to me in that tournament is the composition of the various teams. Something that never fails to amaze me is how sports careerists reinvent themselves and their trade in the most unlikely places. The current coach of Salzburg is none other than the second to last man who mended the bench in my Province's Capital city. Pierre Pagé almost directed one of the most star studded casts of player the NHL has known in the 90s. He got fired before the franchise finally got it together after the 1993-94 campaign, leading them into their last season of a long spell being excluded of the series and being the laughing stock of most everyone in the league but especially of us, Canadiens fans.
The team he left to the hands of Mark Crawford counted amongst its ranks the names of Burnaby Joe Sakic, Northern Ireland's own Owen Nolan, a green little rookie known as Foppa, Scott Young, Valeri Kamensky, Uwe Krupp, Adam Deadmarsh, Adam Foote and now-Islanders GM Garth Snow. Oh, and one Janne Laukkanen from Lahti! that I have to mention since I promised not to stray away so much from Finnish hockey. This team was one goalie removed from total dominance of the league. They moved South, stole Roy from us, during that time, Pierre Pagé checked in at the unemployment agancy and the rest is history.
Now in the Alps, the cast is not that glamorous any longer. But by Austrian league standards, the Energy drink sponsor does seem to have splashed quite a bit of money in order to give Pagé that championship he craves for. Frank Banham who I saw literally flying on the ice for SaiPa a couple years back, anchors the offence. Reinhard Divis, the first Austrian ever to reach the NHL when he warmed the bench in Saint-Louis, is between the pipes. Stanley Cup winner as an extra with the Ducks last year, Richard Jackman finds himself solidifying the blueline. NHL journeyman Josh Green who played 50 some games last year for Vancouver, and skated for no less than 8 NHL teams in his career, is on the wing. Olympic Gold medallist Daniel Tjärnqvist is a late addition on defense, he was the first Swedish player to win a championship in the SM-Liiga, it was with Jokerit in '97, by the way. Not too shabby at all.
But the main point of interest for Finnish readers here is the man backing Pagé behind the bench: Hall of Famer - he's got his jersey on the wall in Vaprikki - former Ranger and two time Stanley cup winner with the Oilers alongside the Great One, Reijo Ruotsalainen. Along with Kurri and Tikkanen, he constitutes my first memories of how Finnish names can be weird. If only I would have known that it simply meant Réjean Le Suédois!
An interesting bunch by all means, remains to see how much the Austrians give a shit about Pierre and Reijo's drive for the Erste Bank Eishockey Liga's greatest honours, however great they might be!