There are just five regular-season games left for the 12 teams in Sweden's Elitserien, but much remains to be decided before the regular season draws to a close on March 5.
At the top of the standings, just three points separate first-place Skelleftea AIK from its closest challenger, HV 71 Jonkoping.
Winners of five of its past seven games, Skelleftea has claimed the top spot in the standings despite a 6-4 loss to HV 71 in a Feb. 5 match in Jonkoping. Skelleftea, which enjoys a league-best plus-32 goal differential and has won one more game (24) than HV 71, features the top three scoring players in the entire league.
Leading the way is former Columbus Blue Jackets and Phoenix Coyotes left winger Joakim Lindstrom. Since coming back to his hometown after a season in the KHL, Lindstrom has racked up 27 goals and 56 points through the first 50 games. He is also the most penalized player in Sweden with 134 penalty minutes.
Boston Bruins right wing prospect Mikko Lehtonen, 23, returned from North America this season to sign with Skelleftea. Nicknamed "Bambi," Lehtonen leads the league with 28 goals and is three points behind teammate Lindstrom for the overall scoring lead.
SAIK also boasts Elitserien's top-scoring defenseman in Ottawa Senators prospect David Rundblad. The 20-year-old, in his third full season at the elite-league level, has 10 goals and 44 points. A first-round draft pick by the St. Louis Blues in the 2009 Entry Draft, Rundblad had his rights traded to the Senators last June.
Rundblad, however, is just one of three stellar NHL prospects on Skelleftea's blue line. Adam Larsson, a highly regarded prospect in the 2011 Entry Draft pool, has posted a stellar plus-15 rating in just 32 games, while Tim Erixson, the Calgary Flames' first-round selection in the 2009 Draft has contributed 19 points this season. Erixon is the son of longtime New York Rangers forward and SAIK alumus Jan Erixon.
"They are different players but all three have been valuable for our club," said SAIK coach Anders Forsberg. "David has a powerful shot from the point, and he's a big part of our power play. Tim is good at reading the play, and he's a good puck mover. Adam is already very good all-around, and he's very agile in addition to his size."
In net, SAIK has relied on workhorse veteran Andreas Hadelov, as well as highly regarded Elitserien rookie Joacim Eriksson. Hadelov has appeared in 35 of the 50 games (after playing 50 games last season), posting a 2.32 goals-against average, 2 shutouts and .917 save percentage. Eriksson has a 2.56 GAA, 1 shutout and .907 save percentage.
Among SAIK's remaining five games, three are at its home Kraft Arena. On Thursday, the club travels to Lulea to take on archrival Lulea HF (fifth place, 21 wins and 78 points) and then returns home to play seventh-place Brynas IF Gavle (75 points) and third-ranked Farjestads BK Karlstad (84 points). After a road game in Stockholm against Djurgardens IF (sixth place, 20 wins and 78 points), Skelleftea concludes the regular season at home against fourth-place Linkopings HC (81 points).
Meanwhile, HV 71 has just two games left at Kinnarps Arena in Jonkoping, but arguably has the easier schedule the rest of the way. HV 71 plays Frolunda HC Gothenburg (64 points) at home on Thursday, and then travels to Karlstad to play Farjestad, followed by a road game against eIghth-seeded Timra IK (68 points). The regular season concludes with a game at Kinnarps against Brynas and a road match against last-place Sodertalje SK (63 points).
After downing SAIK, 6-4, in their final head-to-head meeting of the regular season, defending champion HV 71 has lost two of its last three games. They sandwiched a 2-1 home win against AIK Stockholm around road losses in Stockholm to Djurgarden (5-3) and in Ornskoldsvik to Modo (3-2). HV 71 remains the highest-scoring team in Elitserien with 160 goals scored (three more than SAIK) but has allowed four more goals than Skelleftea.
The Jonkoping club has been set back by injuries this season.
Team captain Johan Davidsson (9 goals, 35 points) has missed 13 games with a knee injury. Former Edmonton Oilers winger Fredrik Bremberg, who won league MVP honors in 2006-07, has been limited to 42 games and 29 points. Defenseman Lance Ward has not played since October, and recently announced that he will not attempt a comeback after undergoing a heart procedure. Meanwhile, the club's controversial forward Per Ledin drew a two-game suspension for an elbowing incident against Skelleftea's Ivan Majesky in their last meeting.
Davidsson, who underwent surgery a little more than a month ago, is on track to return before the end of the regular season.
"I'm feeling much better and there haven't been any setbacks," he told national newspaper Aftonbladet earlier this week. "At the same time, as things stand, I'm not going to chance it or put a timetable on coming back."
Even in the absence of other key players, HV 71 stalwart Martin Thornberg has not skipped a beat. The 27-year-old left wing has hit the 20-goal plateau for the fourth-straight season and ranks fifth overall in the league with 40 points. Teemu Laine (20 goals) has also helped pick up the scoring load, along with Kris Beech (12 goals), center Kamil Piros (11 goals, 37 points) and Finnish defenseman Juuso Hietanen (8 power-play goals among his 10 tallies and 31 points).
In goal, HV 71 has one of the best netminders in the Elitserien. After a two-season stint in the Detroit Red Wings' minor league system, Daniel Larsson has returned home to Sweden to post a 2.47 GAA, .921 save percentage and 2 shutouts in 41 starts for HV 71. His backup, Andreas Andersson, has appeared in the other 9 games.
While the seedings remain up in the air, the top seven playoff spots in Elitserien are all pretty much locked up at this point.
However, there is a fierce battle taking place for the eighth and final playoff spot, where a mere five points divide the remaining five clubs. Currently, Timra holds down the final playoff spot, but the club is just two points ahead of AIK and three ahead of Modo.
Meanwhile, Modo is in a dead heat with Frolunda to avoid having to play in the dreaded Kvalserien (qualification series) to avoid potential relegation to the minor-league Allsvenskan level next season. Both clubs have 16 wins (against 23 losses and 11 ties) and 64 points but Modo holds a huge advantage in the tie-breaking goal differential category with a plus-25 rating in comparison to Frolunda. Modo is also just one point ahead of last-place Sodertalje, which has actually won two more games than the Ornskoldsvik or Gothenburg clubs but has a league-high 25 losses.
The clubs that finish ninth and tenth will miss the postseason but automatically qualify for Elitserien next year and need not play in the Kvalserien tournament against the top Allsvenskan teams. The bottom two teams are Kvalserien-bound. The top three minor league teams this season have been the Vaxjo Lakers, Orebro HK and former Elitserien club Rogle BK Angelholm.