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Berlin Polar Bears gunning for another title

by Bill Meltzer
With three DEL championships in the last four seasons and a colorful 54-year history that includes 18 league titles, Eisbären Berlin, aka the Berlin Polar Bears, is the current standard-bearer for German hockey. The team has also finished first or second during the regular season in five of the last six campaigns.

The 2008-09 season has been a historic one for Eisbären on several different fronts. Back in September, the team played an exhibition game against the Tampa Bay Lightning at the brand new O2 World Arena in Berlin. The event marked the first time an NHL club faced a German team in the capital city. Eisbären also took part in the inaugural season of the IIHF-sanctioned Champions Hockey League.

As the domestic season enters the home stretch, head coach Don Jackson's squad finds itself back in familiar territory -- poised to make a run at its fourth championship since the 2004-05 season.

With seven regular-season games remaining, the club sits in first place in the DEL, two points ahead of the Hannover Scorpions, but with a game in hand. The third-place DEG Metro Stars are eight points behind, and the rest of the field in the 16-team league trail by double-digit points.

The DEL is a league that relies heavily on former NHL players, North American minor leaguers and veteran Europeans. In a typical season, 80 to 95 players with NHL experience play in the DEL.

The most successful German teams are the ones with an NHL mentality. They establish a core of veteran players who've played in the NHL and have a competitive mindset and blend in younger, homegrown talent.

No one in the DEL does it better than Berlin, especially in terms of finding imports who play the game properly -- and often choose to stay. The nucleus of the Berlin roster has had a degree of stability that's unusual anywhere in the modern sports world, but especially in the usually transitory German hockey league.

The general manager of the team, former NHL player Peter Lee, has built a team that's strong down the middle -- featuring several players with NHL experience who anchor the center and defense positions.

Jackson, a former NHL assistant coach, works well with both the North American players who lead the team and the native German players who supplement the imports.

Balanced scoring and strong team defense have been the club's hallmark throughout its most recent run of dominance.
Former NHLer Dennis Pederson, in his sixth campaign with Eisbären, is tied for the team scoring lead with former minor leaguer Steve Walker, now in is his ninth year with the team. Both players have posted 49 points through the first 49 games of the regular season. They are tied for No. 15 on the league scoring charts.

More notably, the team boasts a dozen players who have scored 11 or more goals this season. The league's most dominant club in even-strength situations, Berlin does not have a single minus-rated player among the players who have suited up in at least half of the team's games.

In addition to Pederson and Walker, the Polar Bears get considerable leadership and production from a trio of veteran forwards who have found a home with the team.

Former NHLer Nathan Robinson, now in his third DEL season, has posted 13 goals and 46 points. Ex-NHLer and longtime German national team member, Stefan Ustorf, is in his fifth year with the team. He's one the club's top playmakers with 29 assists and 36 points. Mark Beaufait, in his seventh year with Berlin, has tallied 16 goals and 42 points.

The nucleus of the Polar Bears starting blue line is comprised of former NHL defensemen. Deron Quint is in his fourth season with the team) while Richie Regehr is in Germany for a second season, but playing his first campaign with Berlin. They are joined by first-year man Brandon Smith and veteran Andy Roach, who has spent much of his career in Germany and Switzerland and is in his third season with the Polar Bears. 

Quint is one of the league's top offensive defenseman, potting 15 goals and 45 points, while leading the team with a plus-22 defensive rating. Regehr has also scored 15 goals, with seven coming on the man advantage.

Former minor league goalie Rob Zepp handles goaltending chores for Berlin. He boasts a gaudy 26-13-2 record to go along with a 2.52 goals-against average and .916 save percentage. Zepp has also recorded a pair of shutouts.

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