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Finland: TPS tries to recapture old magic

by Bill Meltzer /
There was a time in the not-so-distant past when there was nothing noteworthy about TPS Turku reaching the playoff semifinals in Finland's SM-Liiga.

A club with over 80 years of hockey tradition, the 10-time Finnish champions were one of Europe's most dominant club teams of the last quarter century. In the 13 seasons played between 1988-89 and 2000-01, TPS won eight championships and lost in the finals three other seasons.

For many years, TPS boasted one of the world's best junior player-development systems, and these players formed the crux of the SM-Liiga powerhouse. On a virtual year-in and year-out basis, TPS products were either being chosen by NHL teams in the Entry Draft or being signed by NHL teams to take their shot at a North American career. Among the litany of TPS players who have also played in the NHL, the likes of Saku Koivu, Jere Lehtinen, Mikko Koivu and goaltenders
Miikka Kiprusoff and Antero Niittymaki got their start in Turku before going on to NHL fame.

With Vladimir Yurzinov behind the bench from 1991-92 to 1997-98 and goaltending legend Urpo Ylonen (for whom the league equivalent of the Vezina Trophy is named) heading what became a veritable goaltending factory, it seemed for many years that TPS could do no wrong.  As recently as 2003-04, TPS boasted the best regular season record in the league and reached the Canada Cup (the SM-Liiga's championship trophy) finals.

But that was then and this is now. After their long run of glory, TPS suffered a dramatic fall from grace. Financial problems abounded, the seemingly bottomless well of talent dried up and the club tumbled in the SM-Liiga standings. Karpat Oulu (four championships, six appearances in the finals and four regular-season first place finishes between 2002-03 and 2008-09) took over the mantle as the model Finnish franchise.

Over the last two seasons, there have been signs that another changing of the guard is taking place. Long-time also-ran JYP Jyvaskyla finished in first place both seasons, won the Finnish championship last year and, entering the 2009-10 semifinals, remain the odds-on favorite to capture this year's championship. Their semifinal opponent, TPS, is aiming to derail the burgeoning powerhouse.

TPS finished in sixth place during the regular season this year – good enough to earn the final automatic bye into the quarterfinals (the 7th to 10th seeds must play an additional round to qualify) but not good enough for head coach Kai Suikkanen's team considered a serious title threat. Among North American fans, the most recognizable names on the current TPS squad are defensemen Aki Berg (the team captain) and former Columbus Blue Jackets defensemen Darcy Campbell. The club's leading scorers were left winger Ilari Filppula (the older brother of Detroit Red Wings forward, Valterri Filppula), Ville Vahalahti and Czech forward Michal Birner. Filppula's 37 assists and 49 points paced the team, while Vahalati's 21 goals and Birner's 15 tallies and plus-14 defensive rating paced the team. In goal, TPS has former AHL keeper David Leggio and Nashville Predators prospect Atte Engren.

Meanwhile, American defenseman Lee Sweatt (older brother of Chicago Blackhawks prospect Bill Sweatt) has been a key offensive force since joining the club midseason from KHL team Dynamo Riga. In 21 regular-season games for TPS, the diminutive (5-foot-8) offensive defenseman tallied 9 goals and 16 points. To date in the postseason, Sweatt is tied for the league lead with 8 playoff assists.

TPS entered the playoff quarterfinals as the underdog in a series against third-place Lukko Rauma. But TPS turned the series into a rout, sweeping Lukko in four games, and outscoring them by a combined score of 14-5. The series, which saw both Leggio and Engren register shutouts, was highlighted by a 5-0 romp in which Filppula compiled a three-point game and five different players scored against former NHL goalkeeper Mikael Tellqvist.

Despite TPS' surprisingly easy four-game upset of Lukko and JYP needing seven games to dispatch Karpat (after nearly blowing a 3-1 lead in the series), JYP is the nearly unanimous favorite to meet the winner of the KalPa Kuopio vs. HPK Hameenlinna series in the finals. But if the first two games of the Lukko-TPS series are any indication of what's to come, JYP could be looking at another long series if it is to get the opportunity to defend its crown in the finals.

In game one, JYP nursed a scant 1-0 lead into the third period before a pair of goals by Mikko Hakkarainen put the game away. JYP prevailed, 4-2. In the second game, with the scene shifting to Turku, a first-period goal by Marko Virtala and a third-period, power play goal by Sweatt were just enough for Leggio (32 saves) to nail down a series-tying victory. The series will resume today in Jyvaskyla. Meanwhile, the KalPa-HPK series is also tied at one game apiece.

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