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Finnish playoffs: Blues look to discard Aces

Wednesday, 03.23.2011 / 9:51 AM / Across the Pond

By Bill Meltzer - NHL.com Correspondent

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Finnish playoffs: Blues look to discard Aces
Espoo Blues finished ninth in the top Finnish league during the regular season, but now they're one game away from advancing the playoff semifinals.
In most European leagues, eight teams qualify for postseason play, and the playoff quarterfinals begin immediately after the conclusion of the regular season. Finland's SM-Liiga, however, works a little bit different.

In the Finnish league, the top six seeds earn automatic byes into the quarterfinals. Meanwhile, the seventh- and eighth-place teams must play best-of-three series against the 10th- and ninth-place teams, respectively.

This season, both lower-ranked teams won their play-in series, advancing to the quarterfinals. Tenth-place Ilves Tampere upended seventh-ranked HPK Hameenlinna in two straight games, while the ninth-place Espoo Blues nipped Karpat Oulu in three hard-fought games.

The best-of-seven quarterfinal round is going on now, with top-ranked JYP Jyvaskyla taking on Ilves; second-place Assat Pori playing Espoo; third-seeded HIFK Helsinki taking on arch rival Jokerit Helsinki, the sixth seed; and fourth-place Lukko Rauma playing fifth-seeded KalPa Kuopio.

Here is a look at the progress of each of the series to date.

Blues on brink of semifinals -- Espoo had an inconsistent regular season but has hit its stride in the playoffs, taking a 3-0 series lead against Assat. The Blues have a chance Wednesday to close the series on home ice. Thus far in the playoffs, the underdog Blues have been buoyed by the play of forwards Petri Lammassaari and Toni Kahkonen, defenseman Oskari Korpikari and goaltender Iiro Tarkki.

Coming off a 19-goal regular season, the 25-year-old Lammassaari currently leads all players in playoff scoring with 7 points (4 goals, 3 assists) through his first 6 postseason games, including a goal and 2 assists in the three games against Assat. Kahkonen, 24, scored just 10 goals during the regular season but got hot down the stretch, scoring four times in the final 10 games of the regular season. He carried his run into the playoffs, scoring 4 goals already, including tallies in each of the past two games.

Korpikari, a former Montreal Canadiens prospect who played his entire career until this season with Karpat, has been one of his team's most valuable contributors all season. He had just 3 goals and 13 points during the regular season, but boasted a plus-14 rating. So far in the playoffs, he has 2 goals and 5 points. In the quarterfinal series, he scored a goal in the third game and is a plus-4 in three games.

Tarkki has held opponents to two goals or fewer within regulation time in five of his six starts to date, posting a .936 save percentage. He blanked Assat on 35 shots in the second game of the series. The three games have been decided by scores of 4-3, 3-0 and 2-1. In each game, the 25-year-old goaltender has made at least 30 saves.

JYP cruising against Ilves -- Barring a total collapse, top-ranked JYP Jyvaskyla will avoid the fate that befell HV 71 Jonkoping in the quarterfinals of the Swedish playoffs. After finishing 10 points ahead of Assat to claim the regular-season title, JYP has taken a 3-0 series lead on Ilves Tampere and will look to complete a sweep on the road Wednesday. 

JYP made a statement that it was unaffected by the wait for a quarterfinal opponent by blowing out Ilves 7-3 in the opening game of the series. In that tilt, Eric Perrin scored a hat trick and added an assist for JYP, Ossi Louhivaara had 2 goals and an assist and blue-line standout Sami Vatanen -- a 2009 fourth-round pick of the Anaheim Ducks -- contributed a goal and an assist. 

The next two games were much more tightly contested, with JYP winning by scores of 2-1 and 4-3. In Game 2, the clubs traded early goals before goalies Sami Aittokallio of Ilves -- a 2010 fourth-round pick of the Colorado Avalanche -- and Joni Myllykoski settled in for their clubs. But a goal by Jyrki Valivaara with three seconds left in the second period proved to be the difference.

In Game 3, Ilves grabbed a 3-0 first-period advantage but was unable to protect the lead. A shorthanded goal by Turo Asplund got the comeback started, and a pair of goals in the second period forged a 3-3 tie. Jonne Virtanen's goal early in the third period put JYP ahead to stay.

The brightest spot in the playoffs for Ilves has been former Edmonton Oilers first-round pick Jesse Niinimaki. The center has averaged a point per game through the first-round win against HPK and the JYP series. For JYP, Harri Pesonen has points in each game of the series and has racked up 6 points (2 goals, 4 assists) in the three games.

Jokerit holds upper hand against HIFK -- Opponents in the Finnish version of the Winter Classic and arch rivals since the 1970s, Jokerit Helsinki currently holds a 2-1 series edge against HIFK Helsinki. All three playoff games have been extremely hard fought.

In the opener, Jokerit goalie Jan Lasak turned aside 39 shots to backstop his team to a 1-0 win. A late second-period goal by Tomi Maki was the only one of Jokerit's 23 shots to get past Juuso Riksman. In the second game, second-period goals by Petteri Nokelainen and Janne Lahti forged a two-goal lead for Jokerit, and the club hung on to a 3-2 lead until a late empty-net goal by Nokelainen sealed a 4-2 victory. 

In Game 3, HIFK avoided falling into a 3-0 series hole courtesy of ageless veteran Ville Peltonen. Lahti gave Jokerit a 1-0 lead early in the second period, but a pair of power-play goals by Peltonen -- including the game winner with 22 seconds left, which prompted an eruption at the officials from an enraged Lasak -- gave HIFK new life in the series heading into Wednesday's match at Helsinki's Hartwall Arena.

Lukko climbs back into series -- As with the HIFK-Jokerit series, the quarterfinal matchup between Lukko Rauma and KalPa Kuopio has been pretty evenly played. During the regular season, both teams finished with 98 points, but Lukko was awarded fourth place (and home-ice advantage in the quarterfinals) based on having one more win.

KalPa claimed the first victory of the series, building leads of 2-0 and 3-1 on the strength of a pair of goals by Sakari Salminen. Lukko drew back within a goal but was unable to find an equalizer. Perttu Lindgren, who led the league in scoring during the regular season, scored for Lukko in the third period, while victorious goaltender Ari Ahonen made 34 saves for KalPa.  In the second game, Ahonen, a 1999 first-round pick of the New Jersey Devils, registered a 32-save shutout in a 3-0 KalPa victory.

In the third game, Lukko and KalPa were deadlocked at 1-1 with time running down in regulation, but with 2:14 remaining in the third period, Jakub Petruzalek scored his second goal of the game to give Lukko its first win of the series. Former Buffalo Sabres goaltender Mika Noronen made 24 saves for Lukko to earn the win. The clubs square off again Wednesday in Kuopio.
Quote of the Day

This is a big year for us in a lot of ways. You can see Garth and management really trying to find that solution to get us into the playoffs and consistently have that. The pressure is great. You have to enjoy it. It just means there's a great opportunity ahead of you.

— Islanders captain John Tavares