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Link?ping aims to nab top playoff spot in Sweden

by Bill Meltzer
In a league where some of the teams trace their histories back to the 1920s or earlier, Linköpings HC is a relatively young franchise. Founded in 1976, the club has yet to win its first Swedish championship or finish in first place during the regular season. The club has been a contender in recent years, but always seems to come up just a little short. Most notably, LHC lost in the finals in 2006-07 to Modo Hockey Örnsköldsvik  and in 2007-08 to HV 71 Jönköping.

For much of the 2009-10 season, LHC sat in first place in Elitserien. But in recent weeks, HV 71 has made its move and taken the top overall spot. With three games left in the 55-match regular season as of this writing, LHC trails HV 71 by two points (92 to 90) in the standings. Before the playoffs get under way, LHC faces a road game with third-place Djurgårdens IF Stockholm (86 points), a home game against goaltending standout Jacob Markström and his sixth-place Brynäs IF Gävle club (76 points) and then closes out the regular season Saturday by going head-to-head against HV 71 in front of a likely packed house at the Cloetta Center in Linköping.

While it would not be the end of the world for LHC if the team finishes out of the top seed for the postseason, securing home ice throughout the playoffs could go a long way toward bringing LHC's 34-year quest for its first championship to a successful resolution. This season, Linköping has the league's best home record, going 19-5 with two ties at the Cloetta Center.  The record includes an impressive 97-54 goal differential against its opponents. On the road has been a different story. Away from home, the Lions have an 8-14 record with four ties and have been outscored by a 59-74 margin.

Buoying LHC's hopes for the playoffs is the presence of a veteran leadership core, much of which has NHL and/or major international tournament experience. Former Anaheim Ducks forward Tony Martensson (Mårtensson in Swedish) ranks second in Elitserien with 18 goals and 61 points through 52 games. This is nothing new for Mårtensson. In 2007-08, he won The Golden Helmet (Guldhjälmen) award as league MVP after leading the league in both points (67) and assists (59). This is the 29-year-old Mårtensson's fifth season with the Lions, interrupted by a one-season stint in the KHL with Ak Bars Kazan.

LHC's defense is anchored by a pair of older veterans. Longtime NHL defenseman Niclas Havelid (Hävelid), whose older brother, Magnus, is one of the team's assistant coaches, returned to Sweden this year after nine seasons and 628 NHL games with Anaheim, the Atlanta Thrashers and New Jersey Devils. His steady presence on the back end has been a boon to the club. Meanwhile, 35-year-old Swedish Olympian, Magnus Johansson, is the team captain and the second highest-scoring defenseman in the league. With 46 points (7 goals, 39 assists) in 49 games, Johansson trails only HV 71's David Petrasek (15 goals, 52 points) among Elitserien defensemen. In addition, Johansson has only been whistled for three penalties the entire season, all minors.

In goal, 36-year-old former Columbus Blue Jackets keeper Fredrik Norrena has had a solid season, making 42 starts. He ranks in the top five of the league in most major goaltending categories, including goals against average (2.41), save percentage (.911) and shutouts (3). The veteran Finn is backed up by well-regarded 21-year-old keeper, Christian Engstrand, a player who at times has been labeled a potential NHL prospect as he matures.

LHC's roster has often had a strong international flavor to it, in large part because the team's American general manager, Mike Helber, has maintained a pipeline back home as well as around Europe. In keeping with the recent trend in both Sweden and Finland to use fewer import players, there are only four non-Swedes on the LHC roster this season. But the club has a Czech head coach, Slavomir Lener, and two of its key forwards are also from the Czech Republic -- former NHL players Jan Hlavac and Jaroslav Hlinka, who often skate on the same line.

Both Czech players are currently out with injuries. The 33-year-old Hlinka, who spent one season with the Colorado Avalanche, is in his second season with the Lions.  Although he's been limited to 38 games, he still ranks second on the team offensively, with 13 goals and 50 points. He hopes to return for the game against Djurgården.

The much-traveled Hlavac, 33, is a veteran of 436 NHL games with the New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, Vancouver Canucks, Carolina Hurricanes, Tampa Bay Lightning and Nashville Predators. Like Hlinka, he signed on with LHC in the summer of 2008. This year, despite playing only 36 games, Hlavac paces the team with 29 goals and is third in points with 46. He is doubtful for the Djurgården game, but hopes to be ready for postseason play.

Among LHC's younger group of players, the most notable is 22-year-old San Jose Sharks prospect, Patrik Zackrisson. The right winger is an assistant captains and has shown his burgeoning hockey maturity with a season that has produced 16 goals and 32 points. Unfortunately, he, too, has been bitten by the injury bug this season. Zackrisson has missed seven games this season due to injury and is also out for the DIF tilt.

Elitserien has a playoff format unlike any league in the world. The top three seeded teams get to choose their first-round opponent among the fifth to eighth-ranked teams. The fourth seed plays whichever lower seeded team is left after the top three make their selections. The selection event is broadcasted live.

LHC's pool of potential opponents include current eight-seed Modo (whom HV 71 may decline to play because of its beefed-up roster of former NHL players who did not start the season with the club), seventh-ranked Frölunda HC Indians Gothenburg and Brynäs. If the last scenario is the one that comes to fruition, LHC's upcoming game against Brynäs on Thursday could be a precursor of a tough quarterfinals playoff series to come.

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