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Geneva and Zurich locked in tense Swiss finals

by Bill Meltzer / NHL.com

Genève-Servette defenseman Goran Bezina, a former member of the Phoenix Coyotes, was named the top defenseman in the Swiss Nationalliga in 2007-08.
The 2007-08 postseason in Switzerland's Nationalliga A has been one filled with surprises.

First, runaway regular-season winner SC Bern was stunned in the quarterfinals by lightly regarded, HC Fribourg Gottéron, the No. 8 seed. Then, the inconsistent sixth-seeded Zurich Lions knocked off the favored Kloten Flyers and defending champion HC Davos to reach the finals.

The Lions' opponent for the championship: the Geneva-based Genève-Servette hockey club. While GSHC finished in second place during the regular season, it has a long history of coming up short when the chips are down.

Founded in 1905 and transformed in 1963 into its modern combination of the once-separate Servette and Geneva teams, GSHC has never won the title in Switzerland's top domestic league.

The unexpected finalist has waged one of the most unpredictable Swiss championship battles of recent years. Swiss hockey fans are among the loudest and most passionate in the world, and the atmosphere has been electric in both Zurich and Geneva.

Every game at Geneva's Patinoire des Vernets has been sold out --the building holds 6,837 fans -- while 10,200-plus Lions fans have jammed Zurich's Hallenstadion, capacity 10,700.

The clubs on the ice have put on a great show. Each of the five games played to date in the best-of-seven series has come right down to the wire. Two have gone to overtime, and the other two games were one-goal affairs until the closing minute of play.

GSHC grabbed the first two games of the series. Zurich has taken the last three to move within one victory of its first championship since 2000-01. The fifth game saw Zurich score in the final minute of regulation to force overtime after trailing 2-0 midway through the game. The Lions prevailed in a shootout.

Game 6 will be in Zurich tomorrow. If necessary, the deciding seventh game will be Saturday in Geneva.

Genève-Servette HC battling history

For most of Swiss hockey history, the national championship has been dominated by the clubs based in the primarily German- or Italian-speaking parts of the country, with 28-time champion HC Davos being the most-decorated club.

During the past three decades, the Swiss championship has usually been won by one of five clubs: Davos, SC Bern, HC Lugano, the Zurich Lions -- consecutive championships in 1999-2000 and 2000-01 – and during the mid-1990s, the Kloten Flyers won four consecutive championships.

Among the French-speaking cities of Switzerland, HC La Chaux-de-Fonds was the standard-bearing club. The team captured six consecutive championships in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Today, the once-dominant club plays in the minor leagues, after being relegated from Nationalliga A to Nationalliga B. 

The one constant through the decades: At the end of the season, Genève-Servette HC was on the outside looking in as the Swiss championship was decided.  This season, for the first time since the creation of the Nationalliga, Genève-Servette earned a spot in the final.

Coached by Chris McSorley -- brother of longtime NHL enforcer Marty McSorley -- GSHC finished a distant second in the regular season, 22 points behind SC Bern. Servette was also the second highest-scoring team in the 12-team league this year. Defensively, the team ranked fifth.

GSHC features two of the top four scorers in the Swiss league in former NHLers Juraj Kolnik (21 goals, 67 points in 50 games) and Serge Aubin (27 goals, 63 points).  Three other one-time NHL players also played critical roles in GSHC's success this season.
Former Phoenix Coyotes defenseman Goran Bezina (11 goals, 36 points) was widely considered the best blueliner in the league this season, while one-time Philadelphia Flyers forward Kirby Law (17 goals, 42 points) and Atlanta Thrashers alum J.P. Vigier (15 goals, 35 points) also ranked in the top 35 of the league scoring charts.

In the first round of the playoffs, Genève-Servette handled the seventh-seeded SC Rapperwil Lakers with relative ease, winning the series, 4-1. In the semifinals, GSHC avoided the fate that befell SC Bern in the quarterfinals, taking out HC Fribourg Gottéron in five games. Law and Bezina were the top offensive performers in the first two rounds, while Vigier logged a hat trick in the clinching game of the semis.

Zurich turning it on when it counts

Five-time Swiss champion Zurich Lions underachieved during the regular season this year. On paper, German-born head coach Harold Kreis' club was solid in most areas, but had trouble putting it all together on a consistent basis.

Zurich was one of the top three defensive teams in the league, received solid goaltending from veteran Finnish keeper Ari Sulander (2.33 goals-against average, .913 save percentage, five shutouts) and had the fifth highest-scoring attack in the league. Nevertheless, the Lions finished sixth during the regular season, eight points in back of GSHC and 30 points behind SC Bern.

Unlike many of the top clubs in the Swiss league, the Lions lacked high-end imports who dominated the scoring charts. Apart from well-traveled former NHLer Domenic Pittis, ex-St. Louis forward Peter Sejna, former Phoenix defenseman Radoslav Suchy (five goals, 20 points, minus-2) and Sulander, the club's key performers were Swiss players.

The club's top scorer, former Florida Panthers prospect Adrian Wichser, ranked No. 12 overall and first among Swiss players in the Nationalliga with 10 goals and 50 points in 46 games. Second-leading scorer Thibault Monnet (18 goals, 43 points in 50 games) was No. 19 in the league and fourth among Swiss-born and trained players. Defenseman Beat Forster, a Swiss national team regular and former Phoenix Coyotes draft pick, was one of the highest scoring blue liners in the league and also one of the most penalized.

The Lions' inconsistency during the regular season will be long forgotten if the club can close out the series with GSHC and win the championship. In the quarterfinals, Zurich upended Kloten in five games and then toppled HC Davos in six games.

Balanced scoring and the goaltending of Sulander have been crucial to the Lions' success as they head into the sixth game of the finals with a chance to win it all,. Thirteen different players have scored at least one goal during the playoff run.

Lions move to the brink of glory

After the first two games of the finals, Genève-Servette was in the driver's seat. In the first game, GSHC prevailed 4-3 in overtime, as Laurent Meunier scored at the 3:37 mark of the extra period. The goal spoiled the Lions' comeback from a 3-1 deficit in the final eight minutes of regulation. Ageless Zurich veteran Jan Alston scored with less than two minutes left in the game to force the extra period.

Two days later, Zurich once again played comeback hockey, erasing an early 2-0 disadvantage with goals by Forster and Alexei Krutov. The game remained knotted until the 14:24 mark of the third period, when Vigier put GSHC up to stay. An empty-netter in the final minute made it a 4-2 final.

In Game 3, it was finally Zurich's turn to play from in front. Defenseman Daniel Schnyder put the Lions on the board first, less than two minutes after the opening faceoff. Bezina answered shorthanded to make it a 1-1 game, only for Kevin Gloor to quickly restore the Zurich lead. GSHC's Thomas Deruns tied the game in the latter stages of the first period. Midway through regulation Alston put Zurich back on top, 3-2. Sulander took care of the rest, nursing the narrow lead through the rest of the game.

The fourth tilt was another see-saw affair. GSHC got a pair of goals from an unlikely source in veteran defenseman John Gobbi, while Adrian Wicher and Sejna tallied for Zurich. Finally, with the tied 2-2, Sejna scored his second of the game with four minutes left in regulation to seal the 3-2 win for Zurich and tie the series at two games apiece.

The series shifted back to Geneva for Game 5. Much to the delight of the sold-out crowd, the first period was the Kirby Law show. First, the veteran winger skated into the left circle and roofed a shot over Sulander's blocker. Later, during a 5-on-3 power play, Law got open near the left post to receive the puck cross-ice from Igor Fedulov and slam-dunk it past a helpless Sulander.

Midway through regulation, Zurich's Severin Blidenbacher put a long-range shot past GSHC keeper Mona Gianluca during a stretch of 4-on-4 hockey. The tenuous 2-1 lead held for GSHC for the remainder of the second period and the first 19 minutes of the third period. Finally, with Sulander pulled for an extra attacker, Pittis stunned the crowd and the Genève-Servette bench by snapping the puck home with 48 seconds left on the clock.

After 20 minutes of overtime, the game moved to a shootout. Pittis scored to give Zurich the edge and Sulander made one final stop to cinch the 3-2 victory and a three-games-to-two lead in the series.

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