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In Finland, Pelicans reach new heights in SM-Liiga

by Bill Meltzer

After finishing in eighth place last season, this year's Lahti Pelicans team is in first place and off to a 7-2-2 start in SM-Liiga. They are coached by former Finnish national team coach Hannu Aravirta.
No team in Europe has been a bigger early-season surprise than the Lahti Pelicans of Finland’s SM-Liiga (Elite League). After 11 games, the Pelicans are in first place, three points ahead of defending champion Kärpät Oulu.

The Pelicans finished eighth in the 14-team league in 2006-07. Entering the new season, many Finnish commentators and oddsmakers pegged Lahti to be a borderline playoff team. Coached by former Finnish national team head coach Hannu Aravirta, the Pelicans have overachieved in the early going with a 7-2-2 record.

Leading the way have been center Matias Loppi and goaltender Antti Niemi. The SM-Liiga Player of the Month for September, the 27-year-old Loppi leads the league in scoring with eight goals and 16 points. He had seven goals and 12 points in the first month of the season. If he stays healthy, he could surpass his career-high totals (16 goals and 41 points), set last season.


Niemi, 24, has continued to build on his strong 2006-07 season with an even more impressive showing so far this season. The 6-foot-1, 175-pound goalie has started 10 of the 11 matches the club has played so far, stopping pucks at an amazing 94 percent clip while allowing just 21 goals in just more than 600 minutes played.

The Pelicans have been successful off the ice, as well. They are far from a big-budget team, but they are a profitable organization. The team -- which is partially owned by former NHL goaltender Pasi Nurminen -- has turned a profit two years in a row – something that is far from a given in the SM-Liiga, where many clubs, including former perennial powerhouse TPS Turku, have been hurting financially in recent years.

Only seven SM-Liiga clubs project to turn a profit this season, with Lahti’s projected 100,000 € (about $141,500 U.S.) representing the league’s fourth-highest expected profit, after Kärpät Oulu, HIFK Helsinki and Tappara Tampere.

Playing in Finland’s seventh-largest city (about 98,000 people) Lahti has seen increases in its sponsorships and the game-day revenues from the club’s 5,098-capacity Isku Areena in each of the last several seasons. Meanwhile, the team is operating on a modest 1.3 million € ($1.84 million U.S.) salary budget for the 2007-08 season. Only SaiPa Lappeenranta and KalPa Kuopio are running on tighter salary budgets

So far at least, the Pelicans have gotten a lot of mileage from the veterans on whom they’ve spent their money, while also getting important contributions from several young players.

In particular, former Calgary Flames draftee Marko Jantunen and youngsters Vili Sopanen and Jani Forsström have played major roles in the team’s seven regulation wins to date.

Lahti native Jantunen, 36, was originally a product of Reipas Lahti and TPS Turku. An late-round by Calgary in the 1991 NHL Draft, Jantunen spent one season in North America. He suited up in three games for the Flames during the 1996-97 season, but primarily played in the American Hockey League with Saint John.

The vast majority of Jantunen’s career has been spent in Europe, with highly successful stints with Swedish clubs Frölunda Indians, Gothenburg, Färjestads BK, Karlstad and Timrå IK, as well as Finnish clubs TPS and Jokerit Helsinki. Now in his second season with the Pelicans, Jantunen has scored five goals and five assists.

Forrström, an offensive-minded defenseman, is in his second season as a regular for the Pelicans. The 21-year-old was chosen as the SM-Liiga’s Young Player of the Month for September, when he posted seven points (including three goals) and a plus-5 rating in eight games. In the three subsequent games, he’s posted one assist and a minus-1 rating. At 6-foot-1 and 180 pounds, size is not a detriment to his game, but Finnish observers have said he still has work to do his skating and physical play before he could be considered a legitimate NHL prospect.

Sopanen, who will turn 20 later this month, was the New Jersey Devils’ sixth-round pick (177th overall) in the 2007 Entry Draft. The 6-4, 210-pound winger was always a good scorer coming up through the Pelicans’ junior ranks. The main question was his skating ability.

He was held quiet at the 2007 Under-20 World Championships in Sweden, but has started to come into his own for Lahti so far this season. The youngster has five goals and nine points through the first 11 matches.

Other early standouts for the Pelicans include veteran center Toni Koivunen, winger Jesse Saarinen and puck-moving defenseman Samuli Sohonen.

There are two non-Finns on the club: Canadian center Evan Schwabe and Estonian-born, Finnish-trained Leo Komarov.

Koivunen is now in his fifth season back with his hometown club after a lengthy stint with JyP Jyväskylä and shorter stays with the Espoo Blues and Swedish club, Timrå IK. The 36-year-old center has nine points (all assists) in the 11 games played so far.

Suhonen, 27, is a product of the KalPa Kuopio system, rising up the ranks through its highly respected junior system to play for KalPa’s senior club for six seasons. After playing for Espoo last year, he moved to the Pelicans. So far, he’s averaging an assist per game and is tied for the SM-Liiga lead in assists with Jokerit’s Tim Stapleton and the Blues’ Stefan Öhman.

At the junior levels, the 5-10, 180-pound defenseman was often a point-per-game scorer, but this is the first year he’s shown similar productivity at the Finnish elite level.

Despite typically being the smallest player on the ice, the 5-7, 165-pound Saarinen has been a productive offensive player for the Pelicans in each of the two previous seasons. A homegrown product of Lahti’s junior system, the 22-year-old has tallied six goals so far to rank second on the club to Loppi.

The 21-year-old Komorov was drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the sixth round (No. 180) of the 2006 NHL Entry Draft. The agitating forward, who played for Team Finland in the last two World Junior Championships, posted 108 penalty minutes last year in 48 games with Lahti. So far this year, he has four points and 18 penalty minutes.

Schwabe, 25, is playing his first season in Finland. The University of Minnesota graduate played the last two seasons in the East Coast Hockey League with the South Carolina Stingrays before signing with the Pelicans this summer. He has two goals and six points to date.

It remains to be seen whether the Pelicans can continue to play such excellent hockey, but they’ve already passed one major test. In Lahti’s first meeting with Kärpät, the visiting Pelicans upended Kärpät by a 6-3 margin.

So far, the Pelicans have been dominant at the Isku Areena. The club has beaten Ässät Pori, Lukko Rauma, TPS Turku, HPK Hämeenlinna, and KalPa Kuopio. The team’s lone blemish so far is an overtime loss to 2006-07 playoff finalist Jokerit Helsinki. On the road, the team has three wins in four games.

Tough tests lie ahead immediately for the Pelicans. The team will now embark on a stretch of four consecutive road matches. Six of the next eight games, in fact, will be played away from Isku. If Lahti can navigate this stretch and remain in first place, they could start to turn skeptics of their early-season success into believers.

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