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HIFK ends Finnish championship drought

by Bill Meltzer
For the first time in 13 years and the eighth time in its history, HIFK Helsinki is the champion of Finnish hockey. The club recently completed a four-game sweep of the Espoo Blues in the SM-Liiga finals. HIFK got better and better as the playoffs rolled along, winning its final eight games in a row and 10 of 11 games overall. After HIFK fought back from a 3-2 series deficit in the quarterfinals against archrival Jokerit Helsinki, there was no stopping the team, as it took down Lukko Rauma in five semifinal games and then breezed past a plucky underdog Espoo team in the finals.

Founded in 1897 and playing hockey since 1945, the historic athletic club in Finland's capital enjoyed its greatest period of success on the ice from the 1960s to the early 1980s, overlapping with the professionalization of Finnish hockey. In the late 1990s, under the auspices of General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen (now the GM of Jokerit), the organization assembled arguably the most formidable club in league history, easily capturing the 1997-98 championship. After that, the well ran dry -- until now.

HIFK quickly became an also-ran in the SM-Liiga after Kekalainen left for the NHL and the nucleus players of 1998 championship team -- which boasted Tim Thomas in goal, a blue line featuring the likes of Kimmo Timonen, Brian Rafalski and Jere Karalahti, and a forward corps that included Olli Jokinen, Johan Davidsson, Miika Elomo and Jarkko Ruutu -- soon departed. In the 11 years following that championship season, HIFK failed to reach the final round of the playoffs and failed eight times to advance beyond the quarterfinals.

The culture began to change for the better in 2008, following a top-to-bottom organizational house cleaning. Among the key hockey operations changes were the hiring of Jukka Valtanen as the new GM and Kari Jalonen as the head coach.

Jalonen, who coached Karpat Oulu to three SM-Liiga championships and was also a member of five Finnish championship teams during his playing career and three others as an assistant coach with TPS Turku, brought with him the reputation of knowing how to win. Valtanen, meanwhile, has been methodical in assembling a team with a combination of talented youth -- most notably, top Minnesota Wild prospect Mikael Granlund -- and grizzled veterans. The club made two vital additions this season.

Last summer, Valtanen lured veteran goalie Juuso Riksman away from Jokerit. A two-time winner of the Urpo Ylonen Trophy (the league equivalent of the Vezina Trophy) and the 2008-09 Lasse Oksanen Trophy (the Most Valuable Player award), Riksman provided an upgrade in net. During the regular season, he posted a 1.90 goals-against average, .928 save percentage and four shutouts to rank among the league leaders. In 15 postseason starts, the 34-year-old was even stingier, lowering his GAA to 1.55, raising his save percentage to .942 and posting shutouts in the first game of the quarterfinals against Jokerit and fourth game of the semifinals against Lukko.

"The guys played great in front of me all year," Riksman told the Finnish media amidst the championship celebration. "During the playoffs, I saw most of the shots, and for a goaltender, that's all you can really ask. They made my job easier."

Every bit as important as the Riksman addition, HIFK brought iconic Finnish star Ville Peltonen back to the organization where he got his start in the sport. Signed last May to a two-year contract and appointed team captain, the 37-year-old Peltonen brought the benefit of a wealth of experience in NHL, Finnish and international hockey to the locker room. He also can still play at a high level, as evidenced by the fact that he finished second in the league in scoring during the regular season (26 goals, 37 assists, 65 points in 54 games) and a playoff run that saw him compile 6 goals and 6 assists. Fittingly, he tallied a hat trick in the championship-clinching 4-2 win in Game 4 against Espoo.

"This is a dream come true for me," Peltonen said after the title victory. "Of course, my father [IIHF Hall of Famer Esa Peltonen] won a championship here and I got my start here, so it feels great to accomplish something like this. We believed in ourselves, and everyone had a part in it."

Over the course of the entire playoffs, HIFK's leading scorers were Granlund and 28-year-old forward Juha-Pekka Haataja, who tied for the team and league playoff lead with 16 points. Granlund, who got off to a great start this season before being sidelined by a concussion (an injury that forced him to miss the World Junior Championships), recovered sufficiently to finish the regular season with 8 goals and 36 points in 39 games. He dialed up his game in the playoffs, racking up 5 goals and 11 assists. Haataja, who compiled 16 goals and 38 points, produced 8 goals and 8 assists in the run to the title.

After finishing third in the regular season standings, HIFK very nearly made a quick exist in the quarterfinals. In an extremely hard-fought series with Jokerit that saw every game but the finale go down to the wire, Riksman had to stop an overtime breakaway by Jukka Hentunen to prolong the sixth game. When Haataja subsequently scored (assisted by Peltonen and Granlund) to force a seventh game, HIFK began to gather unstoppable momentum. HIFK crushed Jokerit, 5-1, in the deciding game and never looked back en route to winning the title.

HIFK's crown marks the first time in nine years that one of the Helsinki-based clubs captured the Canada Cup (the SM-Liiga's version of the Stanley Cup). Jokerit most recently won the title in 2002. With HIFK's championship this year, the venerable team now boasts one more Finnish title to its credit than its local arch-nemesis.

As is often the case, the only thing harder for HIFK than winning the title this year will be defending it next season. Jalonen has already been hired away to coach a KHL team, and several HIFK players are rumored to be hot commodities on the open market in the offseason. But for now, the Helsinki club can enjoy the fruits of its labors.
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