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Lukko Rauma relishing role of Finnish frontrunners

by Bill Meltzer
Founded in 1936, Lukko Rauma has only won one Finnish championship in its 76-year history. The club in the midst of a championship drought that spans back to the 1962-63 season, when Finnish hockey was still amateur and primarily played outdoors. In more recent years, the team has generally been a fair-to-middling squad in the SM-Liiga. 

This year has been different. With the 2009-10 Finnish regular season roughly two-thirds complete, Lukko is running away with first place.

Through its first 35 games, Lukko has racked up 74 points and enjoys a 12-point lead on second place KalPa Kuopio and a 17-point cushion atop JYP Jyvaskyla and HIFK Helsinki. As a team, Lukko's 110 goals lead the 14-team circuit, while the 71 goals the club has allowed rank just one behind KalPa for the league's stingiest defense.

Balanced scoring has been the key to the Lukko attack. The club only has one player in the league's top-10 in scoring, but 14 different players have posted double-digit points and seven players have tallied seven or more goals. 

The squad has also displayed a consistent commitment to team defense and has gotten strong goaltending from Petri Vehanen, 20-year-old Antti Raanta and former NHL keeper Mikael Tellqvist. The latter came over to Lukko after starting the season with Ak Bars Kazan in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League. Collectively, the trio has boasted a 2.02 goals-against average and stopped pucks at a 93.1 percent clip. The club has registered five shutouts to date (two apiece by Vehanen and Raanta).

Mostly for financial reasons, most of the clubs in the SM-Liiga have attempted to cut back on the number of foreign import players on the roster, in favor of younger homegrown talent and returning Finnish and Swedish veterans. But the contributions of the four non-Finnish position players on the Lukko roster have been crucial to the club's success this season.

In his first season with Lukko, Kurtis McLean leads the club in scoring and currently ranks ninth in the league. The 29-year-old center, who dressed in four NHL games last season with the New York Islanders after spending parts of four seasons in the North American minor leagues, has scored 12 goals and added 20 assists for 32 points. He also boasts a plus-8 rating.

Former Vancouver Canucks prospect Justin Morrison got off to a hot start this season, racking up 12 points (including four of the 11 goals he's scored on the season) through his first nine games. To date, he ranks 12th in the SM-Liiga in scoring with 30 points in 31 games played. Now 30 years old, Morrison is in his second stint with Lukko. He has played all around Europe during the past five seasons with stops in Sweden's Elitserien, SM-Liiga with Lukko, the Swiss National League, the KHL and Germany's DEL.

The other non-Finn forward in Lukko's lineup is Czech right winger Jakub Petruzalek. The 24-year-old, who suited up for a pair of NHL games last year for the Carolina Hurricanes, tallied five goals in the early going of this season but endured a bit of a drought. He currently ranks 31st in the league in scoring, with 9 goals and 22 points in 33 games.

American defenseman Charlie Cook has also been a key contributor. Now in his second season with Lukko and fourth in SM-Liiga, the Cornell University graduate and former Philadelphia Phantoms (AHL) blueliner got off to a tremendous start, leading all defensemen in the league in scoring through the first month of the season. His offensive pace has slowed, but his overall play has remained strong. He ranks sixth on Lukko in scoring with five goals, 19 points and a plus-5 rating.

Veteran Finnish defenseman Tommi Kovanen is the second leading scorer among defensemen in the league. The 34-year-old backliner has compiled 8 goals and 22 points in 34 games, to go along with 64 penalty minutes. The diminutive (5-foot-8, 170 pound) defenseman has an excellent shot at surpassing his career-best 10 goals and 25 points, accomplished in 2004-05 as a member of JYP. Kovanen also has a plus-4 rating.

In terms of plus-minus rating, Lukko's top players have been the defensive duo of Harri Tikkanen and Tomi Pettinen. The 28-year-old Tikkanen also has six goals to his credit. The 32-year-old Pettinen, a former member of the New York Islanders, has used his size (6-3, 220 pounds) to block a lot of shots attempts.

The acknowledged leader of the Lukko locker room is longtime NHL player Antti Laaksonen. The 36-year-old left winger has more than 1,000 games worth of combined professional and international experience, including 508 NHL regular season and playoff games with the Boston Bruins, Minnesota Wild and Colorado Avalanche. Injuries this season have limited the team captain to 24 games, five goals and 11 points. Last year (his first with Lukko), Laaksonen posted 17 goals and 40 points.
At the other end of the spectrum is 22-year-old rising star Janne Keranen. Recruited away from HIFK Helsinki, the forward is fifth on the team with 9 goals and 20 points. Much of his production came in October. Keranen's plus-11 rating is tops among forwards on the team, tied with fellow youngster Miikka Tuomainen.

The southwestern port city of Rauma may have a lengthy hockey tradition, but it's best known for its lace, boating and for the unique dialect of Finnish spoken by its inhabitants. If Lukko carries its outstanding play through the spring, the club may bring championship hockey back to Rauma for the first time in 47 years.

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