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Flyers soaring, Nolan staying with Zurich

by Bill Meltzer
The 2010-11 Swiss National League A (NLA) regular season has reached the midway point.  Similar to the NHL, where the Philadelphia Flyers currently share the best record in the NHL with the Washington Capitals, a team called the Flyers leads the pack in the Swiss League.
The Kloten Flyers, under the direction of coach Anders Eldebrink and general manager Alpo Suhonen, have an impressive 60 points through their first 26 games (including 18 regulation wins) to open a six-point lead on second-place HC Davos and an eight-point cushion on EV Zug.  Kloten has scored a league-high 91 goals to date, while allowing a league-low 55.

As is usually is the case with top NLA clubs, the Kloten roster is filled with a mixture of names familiar to NHL fans as well as homegrown talents. Former NHL center Tommi Santala paces the club, and ranks second in the league scoring race, to Stacy Roest, with 32 points to date. Now in his 10th season as a member of the Flyers, 37-year-old veteran forward Kimmo Rintanen (10 goals) has been the beneficiary of many of Santala's 26 assists.

Among its North American imports, the club features former Chicago Blackhawks standout Mark Bell (9 goals, 15 points) and high-scoring former Calgary Flames, Pittsburgh Penguins and St. Louis Blues defenseman Micki DuPont (6 goals, 22 points, plus-15 rating). The native Swiss contingent is led by a talented core of young players that includes 24-year-old forward Matthias Bieber (10 goals, 20 points), 22-year-old Simon Bodenmann (10 goals, 14 points in 17 games), 26-year-old defenseman Felicien Dubois (5 goals, 18 points, plus-16). Goaltending chores are handled by 37-year-old veteran Ronnie Rueger (24 starts, 2.00 GAA, .913 save percentage, 2 shutouts).

With teams in the Swiss League gaining three points for each regulation victory and two for every overtime or shootout win, the Flyers' lead is not as comfortable as it would seem to North American fans. Here's a look at some of the key recent moves the clubs chasing Kloten have made to try to close the gap in the standings during the second half of the season.

ZCS extends Nolan -- Longtime NHL star Owen Nolan has made no bones about the fact his first priority is to return to the world's top league and compete for the Stanley Cup. Nevertheless, the 38-year-old veteran has decided to extend his short-term contract with the ZSC Lions. Originally signed for an eight-game stint (2 goals, 11 points), Nolan agreed to a two-month extension that will carry him through Jan. 23.

"I am enjoying my stay in Zürich," said Nolan of the extension. "There's a good group of players here and I think we're capable of doing better as a team than we've done so far. Also, there's a great atmosphere in Switzerland, on and off the ice."

Nolan is coming off a down season in the NHL. Last season with the Minnesota Wild, he had just 16 goals and 33 points in 73 games. Nevertheless, if the former All-Star power forward is unable to catch on with an NHL club, he could be a valuable asset to the Lions for the remainder of the season.

ZSC, which has won three Swiss championships in the past decade, currently sits in fifth place in NLA with 43 points. Among Nolan's more notable teammates are former NHL players Dominic Pittis (13 goals, 27 points) and defenseman Cory Murphy (6 goals, 20 points),  and Swiss national team regular defenseman Mathias Seger (11 points), along with forwards Thibault Monnet (6 goals, 16 points), Patrik Bärtschi  (6 goals, 11 points) and Andreas Ambühl (4 goals, 12 points).

Huet holding down the fort for Fribourg -- HC Fribourg-Gottéron made its most important move before the start of the season when it acquired veteran French goaltender Cristobal Huet on loan from the salary-cap strapped Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks. The 35-year-old has done his part to keep the club competitive in the standings. The club currently ranks sixth with 40 points -- the same as the SCL Lions but with a game in hand.

Huet has made 17 starts in goal, registering a 2.30 goals-against average and .923 save percentage. He even has registered 3 assists. His primary backup, Pascal Caminada, has a 2.70 GAA and .882 save percentage in seven games.
The top performers on Fribourg are native Swiss players Sandy Jeannin (20 assists, 23 points), Julien Sprunger (6 goals, 22 points), Benjamin Plüss (10 goals, 18 points) and Andrei Bykov (5 goals, 18 points). The latter is the Swiss-born son of Team Russia coach Vycheslav Bykov, who spent the last seven years of his playing career with Fribourg. Former NHL defenseman Shawn Heins, who in his fifth year with the club, serves as team captain.

More recently, the club signed Swedish left wing Bjorn Melin for the remainder of the season. The 29-year-old, who has played for the Swedish national team, has spent most of his career with his hometown HV 71 Jönköping team in the Swedish Elite League. He started this season in the KHL with Nizhnekamsk, where he played 14 games (3 goals, 4 points) prior to being released. Melin played three NHL games for the Anaheim Ducks in 2006-07 but spent most of that season in the American Hockey League.

Czech duo pacing Davos -- Former NHL forwards Jaroslav Bednar and Petr Sykora have been the offensive sparkplugs that have 26-time Swiss champions HC Davos within shouting distance of Kloten for the top spot in the league. Both Czech players are new to the team this season.

Right wing Bednar (11 goals, 27 points) played in the KHL last season after spending four seasons with his hometown HC Slavia Prague in his native Czech Republic. Sykora (16 goals, 26 points) is in his second stint with Davos after playing with Czech champion HC Pardubice last season. Sykora, who should not be confused with the long-time standout forward for the New Jersey Devils and Pittsburgh Penguins, was drafted by the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and later played briefly with the Nashville Predators and Washington Capitals. Meanwhile, 34-year-old veteran Josef Marha (5 goals, 10 points) completes a trio of talented Czechs on the team. Marha has found a long-term hockey home in Davos. The former Anaheim Ducks and Chicago Blackhawks forward is in his 10th season with the team.

Davos also includes several key players who are no strangers to the Swiss national team and a couple who at one time were considered NHL prospects. Veteran forward Reto Von Arx (9 goals, 22 points) remains one of the most dangerous offensive players in NLA, while defensemen Tim Ramholt (5 goals, 11 points) and Beat Forster (13 points) have provided two-way presences.

One month from now, Davos will continue one of the most storied traditions in the hockey world. The town and home club will host the annual Spengler Cup tournament between Christmas and New Year's Day. With the exception of two years during World War II, as well as 1949 and 1956, the tourney has been played every year since its founding in 1923. Last year, KHL club Dinamo Minsk beat HC Davos in the finals.
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