|HV71 captain Johan Davidsson celebrates his team's championship in Jönköping, Sweden. The former NHL center had 20 points in the playoffs after tallying 43 during the regular season.
No team knows better than Sweden's HV71 Jönköping that regular-season success is not a guarantee of playoff victory. The club has finished first or second during the Elitserien regular season in four of the last five seasons. But in each of the past two seasons, the team suffered heartbreaking seven-game defeats in the playoff semifinals.
This year, the club put it all together. For the first time since 2003-04, HV71 reigns supreme in Sweden after dominating during the regular season and downing Linköpings HC in six games in the SM-Finals. The team, whose unusual name derives from 1971 merger of the former Husqvarna IF and Vätterstads IK clubs, now has three Swedish championships to its credit.
The most recent championship might have been the sweetest, because HV71 had to battle its own recent history of stunning playoff collapses.
Two seasons ago, after winning another regular-season championship, HV71 was one minute away from a berth in the finals when it gave up two goals in the final 60 seconds against eventual champion Färjestad. Last year, Jönköping blew a 3-1 series lead in the semifinals, losing to eventual titlist Modo Hockey Örnsköldsvik. This time around, HV71 simply wouldn't be denied.
HV71 dropped its opening game of the playoffs to Skellefteå AIK, but proceeded to win the next four games in a row by a combined score of 17-2. In the semifinals, HV71 stumbled out of the blocks again, losing two of the first three matches before going on win three in a row and allowing just two goals in the final three games.
In the finals, HV71 had to crawl out of a deep hole against Linköping. After losing the first two games, the Jönköping club went on to take four in a row, including a pair of overtime games.
"We have worked very hard for this," coach Kent Johansson said on the team's official site. "You don't win in the playoffs unless you work hard. We got together an extremely good team, and the entire organization deserves credit. We also have a lot of guys on the team with a winner's mentality and it showed when we won the series."
During the regular season, HV71 ran away with first place, finishing 15 points ahead of second-place Linköping on the strength of a 31-13-11 record. The club from Jönköping led the league in goals scored, and allowed the second fewest goals in the circuit. HV71 also played with much more snarl and grit than North Americans typically associate with Swedish hockey.
Back from a one-season stint in North America, veteran Swedish national team goalie Stefan Liv
started 46 games while posting a 2.26 goals-against average, five shutouts and a .916 save percentage. In the playoffs, Liv was even tougher to beat, yielding a miniscule 1.82 goals per game, recording three shutouts and posting a .938 save percentage. In the deciding tilt of the finals, HV71 was outshot by a 33-24 margin, but Liv turned aside 31 shots and the club went to win in overtime, 3-2.
Liv was ably assisted by a deep defensive corps and a team-wide commitment to two-way hockey. Ageless veteran Per Gustafsson
, who was injured and unable to play in the last two games of the finals, is widely acknowledged as the team's inspirational leader on the blue line. But former Edmonton Oilers
defenseman Mikko Luoma
, fellow Finn Pasi Puistola, offensive minded Johan Åkerman, and former Florida Panthers
and Anaheim Ducks
defender Lance Ward
also provided plenty of experience.
Offensively, HV71 was able to roll out two legitimate scoring lines. The regular-season attack was led by veteran Finnish left wing Jukka Voutilainen (26 goals, 46 points), former Anaheim Ducks
and New York Islanders
center Johan Davidsson
(34 assists, 43 points), defenseman Mikko Luoma
(10 goals, 35 points), longtime NHLer Jan Hrdina
(18 goals, 42 points) and left winger Martin Thörnberg (20 goals).
Voutilainen and team captain Davidsson were also forces to be reckoned with in the postseason, posting 21 and 20 points, respectively. Meanwhile, defenseman Johan Åkerman potted three goals and added 13 helpers during the playoff run, and Thornberg had seven goals and 17 points.
The outcome of the Linköping series might have been different if Davidsson had not scored two goals in spurring HV71 to a come-from-behind 4-3 overtime win in Game 3. If HV71 had lost that game and fallen 3-0 in the series, chances are that Linköping would have been the team donning the traditional gold helmets worn by newly crowned champions in Sweden.
"The third game was the turning point," Johansson said after the series. "For us to be able to win, that was the key."
Sandwiched between the two crucial overtime wins in the finals were a pair of blowout victories. Davidsson tallied two goals and two assists and Voutilainen recorded three helpers in HV71's 5-1 win in Game 4. HV71 then moved to the brink of the championship with a 7-3 win. Davidsson scored a goal and two assists in that game, while Voutilainen contributed a goal and an assist.
Davidsson and Voutilainen also connected for a go-ahead goal in the third period of the deciding sixth game. But after St. Louis Blues
prospect Jonas Junland
answered for Linköping to force overtime, an unlikely hero emerged to score the championship-winning goal.
Former New Jersey Devils
prospect Eric Johansson
, a one-time junior hockey star with the Tri-City Americans, but a checking line center for HV71, scored only four goals during the regular season this year and two during the postseason. But he secured his place in HV71 history at 5:17 of the OT. The goal wasn't artistic. Johansson got to the net and knocked a loose puck past Linköping goaltender Rastislav Stana
. But it was the biggest goal of the 26-year-old's career. Afterward, he was still in a state of shock.
"I don't know what happened," he said in the victorious locker room. "The puck was laying free and somehow it got to my stick. But I have no idea what happened. You'll have to ask (teammate) Jari Kauppila. He knows."
HV71's victory touched off wild celebration in Jönköping. An estimated crowd of 30,000 people – in a city of 84,400 residents– came out to the team's victory parade and rally at Rådhusparken (City Hall Park) two days after the deciding win in the series.
"I can't believe it," goaltender Liv said amidst the outpouring of fan support and jubilation. "It warms my HV heart."