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Elation and relief for Swedish Elite League qualifiers

by Bill Meltzer
The annual Swedish Elite League qualification tournament known as Kvalserien is an event sure to raise a gamut of emotions for the players, coaches, management and fans of the six teams involved. The prize at stake is two spots in the Swedish Elite League (Elitserien) the next season.

For the two Kvalserien participants representing the two bottom finishers in Elitserien during the regular season, there is plenty to lose and only the status quo to gain in the 10-game double round robin tournament. Kvalserien is something to be dreaded and feared, because getting relegated from Elitserien means league-generated revenue, reduced sponsorship, free agent defections and lost jobs within the local community. Apart from on-ice prestige, this is also why team boosters of some Allsvenskan clubs stage aggressive fund-raising drives to attempt to lift the club into Elitserien the next season.

Meanwhile, the four tournament participants representing the top minor league (Allsvenskan) clubs play all year for the opportunity to make it to Kvalserien. Both for hockey and financial reasons, they are hungry to unseat one of the vulnerable current Elite League teams and yearn for the perks that come with being an Elitserien team.

Last season, AIK Stockholm earned a spot in Elitserien (at the expense of Rogle BK) after a nine-year absence and went on to enjoy a Cinderella 2010-11 season that saw the lightly-regarded team pull off a massive upset in not only reaching the playoffs but sweeping top-ranked  HV 71 Jonkoping in the quarterfinals.  

This year, the field of Allsvenskan hopefuls in Kvalserien consisted of the Vaxjo Lakers, Rogle BK Angelholm, Mora IK and Orebro HK. The Lakers were the top regular-season club in Allsvenskan this year with 107 points, but the organization had never succeeded in making it to Elitserien.  Second-place Rogle was aiming for a quick return to the top level. Orebro finished in third place, making its first Kvalserien appearance in two years, while former Elitserien club Mora IK had to rally late in order to make it to Kvalserien.

Elitserien mainstay Modo Hockey Örnsköldsvik found itself in the unfamiliar position of having to play in Kvalserien this spring after an extremely disappointing regular season that saw the 2007 champions finish last in the 12-team elite league. In the final weeks of the season, Modo was actually in contention for a playoff spot despite a horrendous start to the season but then the bottom dropped out again. As a result, Modo ended up in Kvalserien for the first time in 21 years.

Meanwhile, fellow Elitserien incumbent Sodertalje SK has become all-too-acquainted with Kvalserien, frequently riding the elevator between promotion and relegation in its recent history. In fact, 2011 marked the third straight season that Sodertalje played in the qualification tournament.

As the tourney got underway, it quickly became clear that Vaxjo was a team on a mission. The club won seven of the 10 games in regulation and two via shootout. The lone loss the Lakers suffered was a 1-0 overtime decision to Modo. With a record 26 of 30 possible points in the 10 games, the Lakers easily ensured themselves of their first-ever berth in Elitserien. The feat was actually accomplished with two games to spare, as Vaxjo had mathematically assured itself of a top-two finish after the eighth round.

"There was a great spirit on this club," said head coach Janne Karlsson. "Everybody was unified behind a common goal, and we got very good defense and goaltending. Obviously, this is a huge accomplishment for our team."

Even after Vaxjo wrapped up its promotion to Elitserien, the Lakers remained relentless in their final two games. In the ninth round, Vaxjo dashed Rogle's dreams of Elitserien promotion with a 4-2 win on home ice and then completed the tourney with a 5-3 road win in Mora.

During the Allsvenskan regular season, the Lakers were led offensively by North American import forwards Josh Soares (24 goals, 57 points in 54 games) and Steve Saviano (19 goals, 48 points). In Kvalserien, Soares was limited to 8 games and 4 points (1 goal, 3 assists) but others stepped up in his place to carry the load. After generating 12 goals and 33 points in the regular season, right winger Anders Eriksson potted 7 goals and 11 points in the postseason. Second-line center Joakim Hilding had 4 goals and 8 points in Kvalserien after posting 21 goals and 38 points in the regular season, while Saviano also scored 4 goals among his 7 postseason points.

In goal, Oscar Ahlsenfelt was virtually impenetrable during Kvalserien, holding foes to a 1.46 goals against average and .954 save percentage after posting a regular season 2.07 GAA and .928 save percentage with 6 shutouts in 31 starts. Veteran Slovakian goaltender Karol Krizan, who had been the starting goaltender for Modo during its 2006-07 championship season, served as the primary backup to the 23-year-old Ahlsenfelt, getting into 11 regular season games (2.97 GAA, .897 save percentage) and a pair of Kvalserien games.

The Lakers' dominating run to Elitserien promotion touched off a big celebration among hockey supporters in Vaxjo, including a celebratory rally in the town after Kvalserien. The promotion to the top league could scarcely have come at a more important time for the franchise, as the team is slated to open play in a new arena (Vida Arena) next season and attempt to launch a new era in team history, complete with a new logo and a change in uniform colors. Already the club has recruited former NHL player and longtime Frolunda HC star forward Tomi Kallio for next season, and is rumored to be close to luring Skelleftea AIK standout Brad Moran away from the 2011 playoff finalists.

While Vaxjo celebrated its Lakers, the town of Örnsköldsvik sweated out a nerve-racking finale to Kvalserien. After nine rounds, Modo and Sodertalje both had 17 points. With the Lakers knocking Rogle out of the running for a promotion, the fates of Modo and SSK came down to a head-to-head showdown at Örnsköldsvik's Fjallraven Center. The winner would hold its spot in Elitserien, the loser would be relegated to Allsvenskan next season.

"There were a lot of nervous people in Ö-vik," said Martin Sedin, a host of ModoTV and Swedish WebRadio game announcer. "This was the biggest game in recent team history and, yes, that includes the championship-winning game in 2007. There was even more riding on winning this game. Being relegated would have been a disaster."

Among those watching the game with baited breath were Modo's two most illustrious alumni, team general manager Markus Naslund and newly appointed assistant GM Peter Forsberg. The two longtime NHL superstars have been appointed with the task of helping to halt Modo's fast and dramatic fall since its championship and reversing its fortunes in the years to come. Spending at least a year out of Elitserien did not fit within the plan.

The final game remained scoreless through the first period, with Modo outshooting SSK by a 10-7 margin. At the 4:01 mark of the middle frame, Robert Rosen forged a 1-0 lead for Modo, assisted by former NHL defensemen Ladislav Nagy and Anders Eriksson. Right off the ensuing center ice faceoff, Modo attacked again and power forward Per-Age Skroder potted a goal just nine seconds after the Rosen tally. That was all Modo goalie Tuomas Tarkki would need, and he went on to fashion a 22-save shutout.
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