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Finnish titlists hope to hit stride in CHL

by Bill Meltzer
The millennium has been very favorable so far to Kärpät Oulu of Finland's SM-Liiga. The team, which gets its club nickname from the European short-tailed weasel, has been one of the most dramatic turnaround stories anywhere in the hockey world.

In 1995, the team was mired in the Finnish minor leagues and bankrupt. Five years later, after the club reorganized its finances, it earned its way back to the elite league. In the 2000s, it's become one of the premier teams in Europe (and one of the most financially successful clubs in Finland). Kärpät has won four of the last five Finnish championships, and reached the finals in six of the last eight years.

Kärpät was a shoo-in for the newly launched Champions Hockey League (CHL), which pits the top club teams in Europe against another for a $1.6 million U.S. (one million Euro) prize and the chance to play an NHL opponent next year in the second Victoria Cup in 2009. 

The team performed decently in the CHL's predecessor tournament, the European Champions Cup (ECC), twice finishing as the runner-up to Russian clubs Avangard Omsk (2005) and Dynamo Moscow (2008). Last season, Kärpät narrowly missed another trip to the ECC finals, as a result of a 4-3 upset loss against Czech team HC Sparta Prague.

Kärpät plays its first CHL game Wednesday, traveling to Berlin to take on defending DEL champions Eibären Berlin (the Berlin Polar Bears). Regardless of the outcome of this game, if the Finnish champs are to make noise in the CHL this year, they'll need to overcome what has been a rocky start to the 2008-09 season.

Coach Matti Alatalo's club has had to deal with the defections of several key contributors to its most recent Finnish championship. It's had to integrate new players into lineup and deal with one of the most widespread flu epidemics in recent hockey history.

Not surprisingly, Kärpät has stumbled out of the gates a bit in SM-Liiga, currently sitting in fifth place in the 14-team league.  The team seemed to have righted its ship after a tough start, but has dropped its last two games, including a 3-2 shootout loss to last-place TPS Turku.

Whenever a team has as much success as Kärpät has had in recent years, it's inevitable that other teams -- sometimes including NHL clubs -- will lure away some its top players with more lucrative contracts. Kärpät is still trying to account for the loss of forwards Janne Pesonen and Hannes Hyvönen, as well as defenseman Mikko Lehtonen.

Pesonen, 25, signed with the Pittsburgh Penguins during the summer, after dominating the SM-Liiga last year with a 34-goal, 78-point campaign in the 56-game Finnish season. He was recently assigned to AHL team Wilkes Barre/Scranton to start the season. In his place, the club has relied heavily on 26-year-old forward Toni Koivisto, who leads the team in both goals (4) and assists (9) in the early going.

Hyvönen, 32, signed with Swedish club Södertälje SK after scoring 24 goals and 66 points with Kärpät last year. The former San Jose Sharks right wing subsequently received a contract offer from the New York Rangers, but Södertälje refused to release him from his already-signed deal (there was an NHL out-clause, but the deadline passed). In eight Elitserien games to date, he has 4 goals and 8 points, which would tie him for the goal-scoring lead on Kärpät.

Lehtonen, 30, quarterbacked the Kärpät power play and posted 8 goals and 33 points. He now plays for Swedish club Timrå IK and, despite missing four of the seven games played so far due to injury, has a pair of goals and 5 points. Kärpät hopes defensemen like veteran Ilkka Mikola (plus-5, 4 points) and Ossi-Petteri Grönholm (6 points, plus 4 in the first 10 games) can pick up some of the slack.

To make matters worse, the club lost one of its key offseason additions for up to four months. Former Montreal Canadiens defenseman Martti Järventie tore his Achilles' tendon and faces a lengthy rehab after surgery. He'd been playing more than 22 minutes per game for Kärpät, and his minutes will have to be filled elsewhere.

Oulu General Manager Juha Junno recently signed a North American import to try to fill the void. American defenseman Justin Forrest signed a one-year contract, which includes a try-out period until the end of November. The 27-year-old previously played in Finland for SaiPa Lappeenranta and Ässät Pori from 2004-06. Last season, he suited up in 35 AHL games for the Albany River Rats and the Worcester Sharks, as well as playing 14 games in the ECHL.

Up front, one of Kärpät's primary additions this season is former St. Louis Blues center Daniel Corso. The 28-year-old, who made a quick impression with St. Louis during the 2000-01 season but subsequently faded, has played in Europe (Germany's DEL) and the AHL in recent years. He's missed the last two games, and may miss Wednesday's game against Berlin. In eight games for Kärpät to date, he has 3 goals and 5 assists.

One thing Kärpät still has going in its favor is strong goaltending. Last season, keeper Tuomas Tarkki was chosen playoff MVP. He's been a little inconsistent in the early going, although his stats are strong (2.30 goals-against average, .912 save percentage). He had arguably his best game of the season in a 3-1 win against Lukko Rauma on Sept 23.
Just when Kärpät seemed to be getting in gear, recently blowing out Jokerit Helsinki 6-0 after outlasting the Espoo Blues 3-2, the club dropped its next two games and got hit by a serious flu epidemic. Fifteen players, including both Tarkki and backup goalie Petri Koivisto and five starting defensemen, were rendered unable to play by a particularly vicious strain of stomach flu.

The club was forced to reschedule an SM-Liiga game last weekend and has practiced with a skeleton crew early this week preparing for the CHL opener. But the club now has most of its personnel back in the fold, and is ready to drop the puck on the CHL season.

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