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Jokerit fighting for final Finnish playoff spot

Wednesday, 03.17.2010 / 10:25 AM / Across the Pond

By Bill Meltzer - NHL.com Correspondent

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Jokerit fighting for final Finnish playoff spot
Accustomed to being one of the leading teams in Finland, this season, Jokerit is struggling to reach the playoffs.
With two games left to go in the SM-Liiga regular season, Jokerit Helsinki finds itself in the unaccustomed position of trying to secure the 10th and final spot in the postseason. Apart from a miserable, injury-plagued season that saw the club miss the playoffs in 2005-06, Jokerit usually has been a championship contender over the last decade. Winners of the 2001-02 championship (the sixth in club history), the team has reached at least the semifinals three times, the finals twice and finished in the top four during the regular season four times.

In Finnish hockey, the top six teams receive an automatic bye into the quarterfinals, while the seventh to 10th-ranked teams have to play an extra round to reach the quarterfinals. Jokerit is currently in 11th place, two points behind SaiPa Lappeenranta and one point behind Blues Espoo. Tuesday, SaiPa jumped past Jokerit in the standings by virtue of a 5-3 win over Ässät Pori, coupled with Jokerit's 2-1 loss in regulation to third-place Lukko Rauma.

Until fairly recently, Jokerit was one of the biggest budget teams in Europe. For economic reasons, the club (and the entire SM-Liiga) have scaled back spending and drastically reduced the number of import players. Like every club in the league, Jokerit's roster is now mostly comprised of Finnish players. The big difference is that many of Jokerit's native Finns are former NHL players.

There is still of handful of names familiar to North American fans on the Jokerit roster, but of the three North American imports to suit up for the Jesters this season, only Bates Battaglia (1 goal in 14 games) was ever an NHL regular. The other two players imported from North America this season are former New Jersey Devils defensemen Alex Brooks and longtime minor-league pugilist, defenseman Joe Rullier.

By far, the best known player on the club is Michael Nylander, who came over in January via an agreement with the Washington Capitals. In his first 11 games, the Swede has produced a disappointing six points (2 goals, 4 assists) and a minus-eight rating at even strength.

Including the aforementioned players, Jokerit has used 11 players this season who have NHL experience. In descending order of NHL prominence, the list also includes forwards Juha Lind, Jani Rita, Jukka Hentunen, Esa Pirnes, Swedish forward Fredrik Bremberg, Tomi Maki as well as defensemen Antti-Jussi Niemi and Tom Koivisto.  In addition, the club has former minor leaguers Semir Ben-Amor and Janne Hauhtonen. By SM-Liiga standards, the Jokerit roster should have more than good enough to capture a playoff spot. Instead the club has underachieved for most of the season.

Arguably, Jokerit's single biggest problem has been its inconsistent offense. As a team, the club has scored just 140 goals through 56 games. That figure ranks a miserable 13th (out of 14 teams) in the league. Hentunen leads the team in scoring. Through his first 55 games, he produced 26 goals and 48 points. That ranks sixth in the league. The only other Jokerit players to crack double-digit goals this season have been Pirnes (17 goals), Janne Lahti (15 goals), Rita (13 goals) and Bremberg (13 goals). The top-producing defensemen have been former Philadelphia Flyers prospect Marko Kauppinen (7 goals, 15 points) and Koivisto (6 goals, 17 points).

At the other end of the ice, Jokerit has allowed 152 goals, ranking ninth in the circuit. Starting goaltender Juuso Riksman has posted a 2.71 GAA and an ordinary .904 save percentage. His 2,725 minutes played rank third in the league.

Jokerit's remaining games will be played Thursday on the road against Espoo and Saturday at Hartwall Arena in Helsinki against first-place KalPa Kuopio. If Jokerit squeezes out a playoff spot, the club will likely face either Tappara Tampere or TPS Turku in the first round of the postseason.


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