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Across the Pond

Dallas contingent starring early at Worlds

Wednesday, 05.09.2012 / 12:25 PM / Across the Pond

Bill Meltzer - Correspondent

Dallas Stars left winger Loui Eriksson, pictured with Sweden's Prince Daniel, has racked up six points at the 2012 World Championships. He is one five Stars players to play a prominent role for his team. (Photo: Getty Images)

If not for an April collapse that saw the club fall from first to fourth place in the Pacific Division, the Dallas Stars would have made the Stanley Cup Playoffs this spring for the first time since 2008. While the members of the team would have preferred to play in the NHL postseason, a half-dozen Dallas players received the opportunity to represent their home countries at the 2012 IIHF World Championship in Helsinki and Stockholm.

To date, five of the seven Stars players in the tournament have been standouts for their respective teams. Left winger Loui Eriksson (Sweden) leads all players in scoring through the first three games, compiling three power-play goals and six points overall. Canada's Jamie Benn, who spent most of the first half of the season on Eriksson's line in Dallas, shares the tourney goal-scoring lead with his Stars teammate.

Coming off an outstanding regular season in Dallas, Finland goaltender Kari Lehtonen hasn't skipped a beat at the Worlds. He has already recorded a shutout and has turned aside 47 of 49 shots in his two preliminary-round starts to date.

Finland aims for gold medal encore on home ice

Wednesday, 05.02.2012 / 10:18 AM / Across the Pond

Bill Meltzer - Correspondent

Joyous celebrations arose throughout Finland last spring when the Finnish national team ended a 16-year drought at the IIHF World Championship to capture its second gold medal in the nation's hockey history. Now the 2012 tournament co-hosts along with Sweden, the Finns are faced with the challenge of defending their championship on home ice at Helsinki's Hartwall Arena. All of Team Finland's games, including medal round matches, will take place in Helsinki.

Much of the key personnel from last year's gold medal team are back in the fold for this year's tournament. Once again, Jukka Jalonen is behind the bench as head coach and Minnesota Wild forward Mikko Koivu will serve as team captain. Top Minnesota prospect Mikael Granlund, who scored an electrifying trick goal against Team Russia last year in the semifinals amidst a strong overall tournament, is also back for the Lions. Likewise, there are several returning members of the starting blue line from last year, including former NHL defensemen Ossi Vaananen, Lasse Kukkonen and Janne Niskala.

Across the Pond: European champion roundup 2012

Wednesday, 04.25.2012 / 9:00 AM / Across the Pond

Bill Meltzer - Correspondent

While the Stanley Cup Playoffs are gearing up for the conference semifinals, most of the top European leagues have already crowned their champions for the 2011-12 season.

The KHL's Gagarin Cup final is going to a seventh and deciding game on Wednesday between Avangard Omsk and Dynamo Moscow. The other major circuits -- including Sweden's Elitserien, Finland's SM-liiga, the Czech Extraliga and the Swiss National League -- have concluded their postseasons.

Following is a look at the playoff outcomes and statistical leaders in the aforementioned leagues:

Lasch leads Lahti to Finnish finals

Tuesday, 04.17.2012 / 2:32 PM / Across the Pond

Bill Meltzer - Correspondent

American-born Ryan Lasch has opened eyes in Finland, leading all regular season and playoff scorers while helping the Lahti Pelicans stake a spot in the SM-liiga finals. (Photo: photo)

In geographical terms, there is roughly a 5,700-mile distance between Lake Forest, Calif., and Lahti, Finland. In hockey terms, the gap is much closer than one might think. That's because a native Californian, Ryan Lasch, has become something of a hockey sensation in the small Finnish suburb located 60 miles northeast of Helsinki.

Lasch, 25, has played a major role in helping Pelicans Lahti to within three victories of winning the championship in the SM-liiga. On the heels of winning the regular season scoring championship with 62 points (24 goals, 38 assists), the speedy right wing leads all players in the Finnish playoffs with 15 points (5 goals, 10 assists) through his first 14 playoff games.

The import player's stellar performance puts him in some fine historical company. Over the years, the SM-liiga has been something of a haven for undrafted North American collegiate players -- especially undersized ones like the 5-foot-9 Lasch -- to show they can play the game successfully at the professional level. In the past, undrafted American players such as Tim Thomas and Brian Rafalski and Canadian players like Cory Murphy went to play in Finland after their U.S. collegiate careers.

Divisek leads underdog Brno in Extraliga finals

Wednesday, 04.11.2012 / 12:07 PM / Across the Pond

Bill Meltzer - Correspondent

Once a highly regarded prospect for the Philadelphia Flyers, Tomas Divisek has provided veteran leadership to Kometa Brno while leading all players in playoff scoring. (Photo: Getty Images)

Talent and hard work are not always enough to keep a player in the National Hockey League. It also takes good health and a certain degree of good luck to enable a non-star player to carve a niche in the world's most prestigious hockey league. Tomas Divisek was not one of the fortunate ones during his playing days in North America, but he has enjoyed a fine career in his native Czech Republic in the decade since his return to Europe after a three-year stint in the Philadelphia Flyers organization.

Now 32 years old, Divisek is regarded widely throughout the Extraliga as a veteran leader who delivers in the clutch for his team. He has cemented that reputation this spring in leading a playoff charge that has brought prohibitive underdog HC Kometa Brno within three victories of one of the most shocking championship seasons in recent European hockey history.

Divisek, who spent the early part of the 2011-12 regular season in Switzerland on a one-month contract with HC Davos (five points in seven games before returning to the Czech Republic), leads all playoff skaters with 18 assists and 24 points in 16 games. Starting on a line with young forwards Jakub Svoboda (five goals, 13 points) and Tomas Svoboda (eight goals, 13 points), Divisek has been a force on the power play and at even strength. He also has a plus-14 rating and has won nearly 58 percent of his faceoffs.

Silfverberg powers Brynas to finals

Wednesday, 04.04.2012 / 12:55 PM / Across the Pond

Bill Meltzer - Correspondent

Even before the start of the 2012 playoffs in Sweden's Elitserien, Brynas IF Gavle left winger Jakob Silfverberg was considered a top-notch prospect for the NHL's Ottawa Senators. Despite missing six regular season games, the 21-year-old forward led his team and ranked second in the league in scoring with 54 points (24 goals, 30 assists). He was the consensus league MVP in the regular season, winning the Golden Helmet award.

Now, Silfverberg may be hockey's hottest name outside of North America. He has dominated the Swedish playoffs to a degree that has not been seen in a player his age in many years. One would have to go back to a 19-year-old Daniel Sedin's playoff for Modo Hockey Ornskoldsvik in the 2000 playoffs (8 goals, 14 points in 13 games) to find a youngster who has dominated the Elitserien postseason to the same degree that Silfverberg has this spring.

Legendary Djurgarden in peril of relegation

Thursday, 03.29.2012 / 12:54 PM / Across the Pond

Bill Meltzer - Correspondent

The most storied hockey franchise in Sweden is in severe danger of being relegated from the Elite League next season. Djurgardens IF Stockholm is in severe jeopardy of failing to finish among the top two teams in the six-team, double round-robin qualification series (Kvalserien) with two Elitserien spots up for grabs in the 2012-13 season.

Perhaps the closest NHL parallel that could be drawn is this: Imagine if the Montreal Canadiens, who are 15th the Eastern Conference with five games remaining in the current regular season, were obligated to play for its NHL spot next season in a tournament with the bottom team in the Western Conference (the Columbus Blue Jackets), and the top four teams in the American Hockey League. Then suppose, with four games left in the tournament, the Habs found themselves in fourth place.

That's where Djurgarden, Swedish hockey's nearest equivalent to the Canadiens, currently finds itself. With six of 10 games played in the tournament, DIF has six points (three for a regulation win against Leksands IF, two for a shootout win against Bofors IK Karlskoga, and one for a shootout loss to last-place Orebro HK).

Sweden: AIK knocks off Elitserien top seed again

Wednesday, 03.21.2012 / 1:20 PM / Across the Pond

Bill Meltzer - Correspondent

AIK has knocked top-seeded Luleå HF out of the playoffs one year after sweeping prohibitive favorite HV 71. (Courtesy: AIK Hockey)
Nowhere is the old adage "be careful what you wish for because you might just get it" more true than in Sweden's Elitserien. At the end of the regular season, playoff matchups are not simply determined by the standings. Instead, the head coaches of the top three teams in the regular season get the opportunity in a nationally televised ceremony to select their opponent in the first round of the playoffs. The fourth-seeded team plays whichever team is left.

The selection process creates massive pressure on the top-seeded team. There is considerable potential for embarrassment and second-guessing if the first-place team's hand-picked opponent upsets them in the quarterfinals. In order to deflect the pressure, the coach of the team making the first selection inevitably explains that there no easy matchups anymore and effusively praises the talents of the selected opponent.

Brunner breaks foreign dominance of scoring race

Wednesday, 03.14.2012 / 3:04 PM / Across the Pond

Bill Meltzer - Correspondent

Switzerland's top league, National League A, has historically been dominated by foreign import players. It is common for the majority of National League teams to be led in scoring by one of their non-Swiss players, and the league scoring championship has been the exclusive domain of foreigners since the early 1980s.

While foreign players still comprise the larger portion of the top talent in the Swiss league, the steady improvement of Switzerland's domestic hockey programs at the junior levels are now paying dividends at the top level. First, it was the emergence of Swiss-trained goalies. Now, at last, a native Swiss player has led the league in the scoring during the regular season.

Twenty-six year old EV Zug forward Damien Brunner topped the National League A in scoring this year with 60 points (24 goals, 36 assists) despite missing five games due to injury. The runner up in the scoring race this year was another Swiss player: Julien Sprunger of Fribourg, who finished with 51 points (27 goals, 24 assists) while dressing in 49 of 50 games.

Pond: Playoff action heats up across Europe

Wednesday, 03.07.2012 / 10:52 AM / Across the Pond

Bill Meltzer - Correspondent

Pelicans forward Ryan Lasch (pictured on left) is tied for the league scoring lead with 59 points. (Photo: Getty Images)
With the exception of Finland's SM-liiga, all of the top leagues in Europe have either just completed their regular season or have already begun the playoffs. The European circuits all conclude their championship rounds around the time the Stanley Cup Playoffs get underway in the NHL. This is done in order to allow national teams preparation time for getting their preliminary rosters ready for the annual IIHF World Championships.

Following is the postseason outlook in the top fou rEuropean elite leagues: Finland, Sweden, Russia and Czech Republic.

SM-liiga: Tight battles at top, bottom of playoff race

The SM-liiga regular season concludes March 13, and the playoffs get underway four days later. Under Finland's playoff format, the top six teams during the regular season get a bye into the quarterfinals, while the teams from No. 7 to No. 10 play a best-of-three qualification series (No. 7 seed vs. No. 10 and No. 8 vs. No. 9) to advance to the quarters. The quarterfinals, semis and championship round are all best-of-seven series.

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