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Legendary Djurgarden in peril of relegation

by Bill Meltzer
The most storied hockey franchise in Sweden is in severe danger of being relegated from the Elite League next season. Djurgardens IF Stockholm is in severe jeopardy of failing to finish among the top two teams in the six-team, double round-robin qualification series (Kvalserien) with two Elitserien spots up for grabs in the 2012-13 season.

Perhaps the closest NHL parallel that could be drawn is this: Imagine if the Montreal Canadiens, who are 15th the Eastern Conference with five games remaining in the current regular season, were obligated to play for its NHL spot next season in a tournament with the bottom team in the Western Conference (the Columbus Blue Jackets), and the top four teams in the American Hockey League. Then suppose, with four games left in the tournament, the Habs found themselves in fourth place.

That's where Djurgarden, Swedish hockey's nearest equivalent to the Canadiens, currently finds itself. With six of 10 games played in the tournament, DIF has six points (three for a regulation win against Leksands IF, two for a shootout win against Bofors IK Karlskoga, and one for a shootout loss to last-place Orebro HK). 

In a 72-hour span, Djurgarden was swept in a home-and-home set against Timra IK, the bottom team in Elitserien this season but the first-place team in Kvalserien. As a result, DIF has fallen a virtually insurmountable 10 points behind Timra without the benefit of another head-to-head meeting to cut into the gap. Djurgarden's remaining games will be played at home, against Orebro on Thursday, on the road in Leksand on Saturday, at home against Bofors on April 3 and on the road against Rogle BK Anglestad on April 6.

Legendary club Djurgardens IF failed to adequately replace the numerous regular players it lost from last season's sixth-place squad, including leading scorer Marcus Kruger -- who now plays for the Chicago Blackhawks. (Photo: Jonathan Daniel / Getty Images Sport)
Djurgarden currently is six points behind former Elitserien team Rogle for the second and final open Elitserien spot. DIF is three points behind third-place Bofors and tied in points with Leksand but in possession of fourth-place via tiebreaker (superior goal differential). 

"We have to dare to believe (in ourselves), that it's something we can manage," DIF assistant coach Tony Zabel told the team's website after the second loss to Timra.

DIF now finds itself on unfamiliar -- and unenviable -- turf. The legendary franchise has won more championships (16, six since the formation of Elitserien in 1975) than any team in Sweden. It has produced 47 players drafted by NHL teams, second in Swedish hockey only to Frolunda's 53. Djurgarden was the club team that gave rise to many of the nation's greatest players, ranging from the late Sven Tumba to Mats Sundin

While the team has had rough patches at times in the last decade, both financially and on the ice, it has remained a mainstay in Elitserien until now. In fact, the club has played 72 seasons in Sweden's highest division. Relegation would be disastrous, as it inevitably means a severe drop in revenues the next season, often resulting in lost jobs in the organization and reduced sponsorship opportunities.

There has been significant upheaval within the Djurgardens IF organization this season leading up to the present crisis. In November, Djurgarden Hockey AB chief executive officer Jan Ednertz announced his resignation, effective at the end of the current season.

On Jan. 30, the club fired veteran coach Hardy Nilsson and assistant Mikael Johansson, and promoted J20 coach Zabel and former DIF player Nichlas Falk to assistant coaching positions with the big club. Charles Berglund, a decorated former Djurgarden and Swedish national team player and previous DIF assistant coach, took over the team's head coaching role in March and will begin his first full season behind the DIF bench next season.

While Djurgarden did not enter the current season with high expectations of contending for the Elitserien championship, few expected the team to wind up in Kvalserien, much less to be in major danger of relegation. But DIF scored the second-fewest goals in the league during the Elitserien regular season (123 in 55 games), and was markedly thin on its blue line.

The club failed to adequately replace the numerous regular players it lost from last season's sixth-place squad, including leading scorer Marcus Kruger (now with the Chicago Blackhawks), key defenseman Staffan Kronwall (Severstal Cherepovets, KHL) and the goaltending duo of Mark Owuya (Toronto Maple Leafs farm system) and Stefan Ridderwall (Timra). In late January, former NHL defenseman Josef Boumedienne, who led all DIF blueliners in scoring last season with 5 goals and 30 points, left the club to join Jokerit Helsinki in Finland's SM-liiga.


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Djurgarden benefited from the early-season return of highly touted youngster Mika Zibanejad (5 goals, 13 points in 26 games) on loan from the Ottawa Senators, but the teenager is not ready to carry an Elite League-level team. Likewise, the return to DIF of goalie Gustaf Wesslau after a season with the Springfield Falcons of the American Hockey League has been helpful but not enough by itself to make up for what has proven to be a weakened roster.

With 15 games remaining in the regular season, DIF appeared to be on reasonably solid ground to do absolutely no worse than finish ninth or 10th in the standings (which would have meant missing the playoffs but being guaranteed an Elitserien spot next season). But losses in 11 of the final 15 games, including a 2-1 shootout loss to Timra, dropped Djurgarden into 11th place and a spot along with Timra in the qualification series with the four top finishers in minor league Allsvenskan.

Kvalserien got off to an ominous start for Djurgarden. The home team held a 2-1 lead against Rogle in the opening game only to see RBK rally for three goals in the third period and skate off with a 4-3 win. The second game saw DIF come away with two points instead of three, as it blew a two-goal lead to Bofors in the third period. Former Philadelphia Flyers prospect Mario Kempe scored the winning goal for Djurgarden in the shootout after overtime failed to settle the game.

Djurgarden's brightest ray of hope came in its third game, as the club elevated its game sufficiently on home ice to hold off Leksand, 3-1. But DIF played sloppy hockey in its next game and had to rally in the third period with goals by Kempe and defenseman Andreas Holmqvist to take Orebro to overtime before losing the game via shootout.

That set the stage for DIF's heartbreaking back-to-back regulation losses to Timra by identical 3-2 scores. On Saturday in Stockholm's storied Hovet arena, Zibanejad knotted the game at 1-1 late in the second period after TIK scored first. But Robin Lindqvist put Timra ahead to stay at 1:07 of the third period, and Simon Onerud added much-needed insurance later in the third. Checking forward Tim Eriksson got DIF back with a goal with 7:22 remaining in the game, but the club, which outshot TIK by a 29-17 margin for the game, could not come up with an equalizer.

In Tuesday’s rematch in the suburbs of Sundsvall, the teams were tied 2-2 after two periods thanks to Christian Eklund's game-tying goal for Djurgarden with just two seconds left on the clock. But TIK's Nathan Robinson drove a dagger through DIF with a third-period shorthanded goal, Robinson's second goal of the game. DIF, which peppered the net with 21 shots in the second period alone, was held in check the rest of the game.

"The match outlook was very similar to our previous ones, where we had a good territorial advantage and good sequences in the games," Zabel told the team's website. "But we're giving up too many easy goals, and when you do that, you don't win."

DIF caught a small break Tuesday when Orebro shut out Bofors 3-0. Nevertheless Djurgarden's regulation loss to Timra and Rogle's 5-3 defeat of Leksand were extremely damaging to DIF's hopes of remaining in the Elite League.

Catching TIK at this late juncture of Kvalserien would take a near-miracle for Djurgarden. DIF would need to win three of its remaining four games in regulation and the other one in overtime/shootout to pick up 11 points. While that is possible, TIK also would need to lose all four of its remaining games in regulation. 

Thus, Djurgarden's only realistic hope of saving its Elitserien spot next season is to beat Rogle head-to-head Thursday, keep winning thereafter and hope for a little help on the out-of-town scoreboard. They no longer control their own destiny, and that's a spot no team in the world wants to find itself.

In one of Swedish hockey's most dramatic recent twists of fate, Djurgarden's long-suffering archrival, AIK Stockholm, currently holds a 1-0 series lead on Skelleftea AIK in the Elitserien championship semifinals. AIK, with whom DIF shares Hovet as its primary home arena, returned to the Elite League last season after nearly a decade-long absence and a slow climb out of financial ruin.

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