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Cinderella story playing out in DEL playoffs

by Bill Meltzer
The finals are under way in Germany's DEL and there is already guaranteed to be a first-time champion when the best-of-five series concludes. The series pits the eighth-seeded Augsburg Panthers against the fourth-ranked Hannover Scorpions. Tuesday, the Scorpions took Game 1, 3-1, led by a 2-point effort from Chris Herperger.

Neither team has previously reached the final since the 1994-95 inauguration of the DEL, although Hannover made it to the semis last year after a second-place finish in the regular season. The Panthers missed the playoffs in five of the last seven seasons and had never advanced beyond the first round of the postseason.

In recent years, Eisbaren Berlin has been the envy of the DEL. The club won four of the last five championships and finished in first place in four of the last seven seasons. Entering the playoffs this spring, the Polar Bears were the odds-on favorite to capture another title. The club breezed to another first-place finish during the regular season, finishing with 123 points -- a staggering 25 points ahead of the second-place Frankfurt Lions.

Few gave Augsburg, 36 points off the pace, any chance of beating Berlin in the first round of the playoffs. The Polar Bears were both the highest scoring (209 goals for) and second-stingiest defensive (156 goals against) team in the regular season and had a huge edge in playoff experience. The clubs split the first four games, forcing a fifth and deciding game in Berlin. The Panthers shocked everyone but themselves with a 6-2 victory in which Augsburg overcame an early 1-0 deficit and a 55-24 shot disadvantage.

In the semifinals, Augsburg took on third-seeded Grizzly Adams Wolfsburg. The only team to allow fewer goals (152) than Berlin during the regular season, Wolfsburg's offensive inconsistency proved to be its undoing. Grizzly Adams goaltender Jochen Reimer posted a sterling 1.99 goals-against average and .939 save percentage in the postseason, but suffered from lack of goal support in the games his club lost. The Panthers gained a berth in the finals by virtue of a 3-2 overtime win, a 1-0 shutout win behind a 36-save performance by Dennis Endras, and a Connor James goal and a series-clinching 3-2 win. Wolfsburg's lone win in the series was a 6-1 blowout in Game 3.

By comparison, the Scorpions had an easier journey to the final. Hannover had to go the full five games to down the fifth-seeded Thomas Sabo Ice Tigers, using three power-play goals to seal the clinching game, 4-3. In the semis, Hannover swept ERC Ingolstadt, prevailing by scores of 6-0, 4-1 and 5-4. The deciding game went overtime before Sascha Goc scored the series winner at the 1:37 mark.

Like most teams in the DEL, both the Scorpions and Panthers rely heavily on import players. Apart from native German Goc, the Scorpions feature former NHL defenseman Aris Brimanis, former NHL center Chris Herperger, Slovak forward Martin Hlinka, longtime DEL standout and Norwegian national team mainstay Tore Vikingstad (a former St. Louis Blues prospect), former AHL/ECHL forward Matt Dzieduszycki and Colgate University product Adam Mitchell. In goal, the Scorpions are backstopped by veteran Travis Scott, a recent standout in Russia who played one NHL game for the Los Angeles Kings. Scott is backed by Hungarian national team goalie Levente Szuper, who never played in an NHL game, but dressed as a backup for the Calgary Flames.

In the regular season, Vikingstad led the Scorpions with 50 assists and 64 points in 51 games. Dzieduszycki's 21 goals paced the team, one ahead of Tomas Dolak. So far in the postseason, Mitchell's 9 assists and 11 points lead the team with Herperger leading with 5 goals. Scott has a 2.24 GAA and .928 save percentage.

The Panthers have fewer "name" import players on the roster. Darin Olver, a 2004 second-round pick by the New York Rangers, led the team with 26 goals and 60 points. So far in the playoffs, he has 4 goals and 9 points. Left winger Tyler Beechey was second in the regular season with 24 goals and 57 points. The former AHL player is the  Panthers' top playoff scorer with 5 goals and 14 points to date. 

Augsburg also features former Los Angeles Kings and Pittsburgh Penguins forward Connor James, ex-Kings center Matt Ryan, former Toronto Maple Leafs farmhand Colin Murphy, former Michigan Tech and AHL forward  Brett Engelhardt, former AHL left wing Chris Collins, one-time Edmonton Oilers  defense prospect Christian Chartier, former AHL defenseman T.J. Kemp, former  Regina Pats star and AHL forward Rhett Gordon and University of Wisconsin defenseman Jeff Likens.

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