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March means playoff hockey in Europe

by Bill Meltzer
In the NHL, March is the time for the trade deadline and the home stretch of the regular season. In Sweden’s Elitserien, as well as other top European leagues, March means playoff hockey. The puck will drop Thursday on the 2009 installment of the Swedish playoffs.

In Sweden, the top eight teams in the 12-team Elitserien qualify for the playoffs. The ninth and 10th place teams are done for the season but automatically qualify to remain in the elite league the following season. The bottom two teams face a relegation tournament against the top teams from the minor league Allsvenskan level.

Under the current Swedish playoff format, rather than going by a prescribed formula for the first round (first seed plays the eighth seed, second plays the seventh, third plays sixth, etc.), the top three teams get to choose their opponents.

The following is a preview of each of the four matchups in the best-of-seven quarterfinal series:

Färjestads BK vs. Brynäs IF 

Färjestad finished in first place during the regular season, a comfortable seven points ahead of second-place Linköping. On a live television show broadcast around the country, Färjestad coach Tommy Samuelsson announced that his team picked seventh-seeded Brynäs as its quarterfinal opponent.

FBK is used to being at or near the top of the heap in Swedish hockey. From 1996-97 through 2005-06, the team won four championships and reached the finals in six consecutive seasons (2000-01 to 2005-06). They've bowed out in the semifinals each of the last two seasons, however.

This season Färjestad has morphed from a high-scoring bunch into the stingiest defensive team in Sweden. The club allowed just 122 goals during the 55-game regular season, easily the best mark in the Elitserien. Goaltender Jonas Gustavsson paced the league with a 1.96 goals-against average and .931 save percentage to go along with three shutouts. The offensive attack was led by veteran center Rickard Wallin, who ranked 10th in the league with 45 points (18 goals, 27 assists).

Improved goaltending and team defense also has been the ticket for Brynäs to rebound from the brink of relegation. The team got off to a sensational start this season despite lacking scoring punch beyond its top line. Eventually, BIF leveled off and settled into seventh place.

BIF goaltender Jacob Markström widely is considered a potential future NHL star. In addition to starring at the 2009 World Junior Championship, where he won the event's best goaltender award, the Florida Panthers prospect posted a solid 2.38 GAA, .917 save percentage and three shutouts for Brynäs. Up front, team captain and former NHL player Andreas Dackell led the offense with 40 points, while center Daniel Widing topped the squad with 23 goals. Brynäs only had four players reach double-digit goals for the season (Widing, Dackell, Mads Hansen and Jonathan Granström).

Linköpings HC vs. Skellefteå AIK

Linköping has been a perennial championship contender in recent years but has been unable to get over the hump to win the Swedish championship. The team lost in the finals in 2007 to MODO Hockey Ornskoldsvik and last year to HV 71 Jonkoping.

Among all the teams in the playoffs, LHC is the most inclined to open up the play and press the offense. Linköping led the league with 166 goals scored. The team had two of the league's top 10 scorers in Czech imports Jaroslav Hlinka (12 goals, 55 points) and Jan Hlavac (25 goals, 48 points). Right winger Niklas Persson ranked 14th in the league with 21 goals and 42 points. The flip side of the coin: The 152 goals LHC allowed are the most of any team that reached the postseason.

Skellefteå AIK is not a team that strikes fear in the heart of many opponents, but they always seem to find ways to stay competitive. The club received balanced scoring during the regular season, with eight players reaching double-digit goals. Offensively, the club was led by former NHL player Niko Dimitrakos (22 goals, 44 points) and fellow North American import Brad Moran (11 goals, 42 points).

The return of right winger Mikael Renberg, who came out of retirement to rejoin the team, provided veteran leadership to SAIK. However, Renberg was limited to 3 goals and 6 points in 21 games. Meanwhile, the goaltending tandem of Andreas Hadelöv and Nicklas Dahlberg combined for seven shutouts. Defenseman Erik Andersson chipped in 8 goals and 21 points.

Frölunda HC vs. Luleå HF

After a couple of disappointing seasons, Frölunda HC Goteborg is back in title contention. The club, which won the Swedish championship in 2002-03 and 2004-05, took third place during the regular season on the strength of a 91-point campaign. In a league that has eliminated shootouts and reinstituted tie games, the Indians won six games in overtime during the regular season.

Team defense and balanced scoring were the keys for Frölunda this season. The team did not have a single player among the league's top 25 scorers, but 10 players (including three defensemen) had 15 or more points.

Veterans Niklas Andersson (16 goals, 37 points) and Tomi Kallio (19 goals, 34 points) and youngster Lars Eller (12 goals, 29 points) were the only players to reach double-digit goals. Late of the Tampa Bay Lightning, offensive defenseman Janne Niskala (9 goals, 19 points in 35 games) proved to be a valuable midseason addition. Johan Holmqvist provided solid goaltending (2.17 GAA, .916 save percentage, two shutouts).

Luleå HF rebounded from a disastrous early performance to settle into a fifth-place showing by the end of the campaign. Youngsters Linus Omark and Johan Harju led the way offensively. The small, finesse-oriented Omark finished third in the league with 55 points (23 goals, 32 assists), while the bigger Harju utilized his heavy shot to place seventh in points (49) and tied for second in goals (27).

Beyond Omark, Harju, Mats Lavander (16 goals) and former NHL player Lubos Bartecko (12 goals, 23 points), LHF was a fairly toothless bunch offensively this season. But the club jelled defensively as the season progressed and was one of the league’s better teams at even strength. Goaltender Mattias Modig was a workhorse, logging 2,268 minutes played to go along with a 2.25 GAA, .922 save percentage and four shutouts.

HV 71 vs. Timrå IK

Defending champion HV 71 Jonkoping had an up-and-down regular season in Elitserien and an awful showing in the new Champions Hockey League. The club was the second highest-scoring team in Elitserien, but was inconsistent through much of the campaign. Ultimately, the club finished fourth with 90 points. Playing 20 tie games out of 55 made it tough to challenge for the top spot.

HV 71 once again was led by veteran Johan Davidsson, who placed sixth in the circuit with 50 points. Finnish left winger Jukka Voutilainen finished ninth with 47 points. The team also had three of the league's top 10 point producers from the blue line. Finn Pasi Puistola ranked second among defensemen in the league with 31 points, while David Petrasek (28 points) and Per Gustafsson (27 points) ranked seventh and eighth, respectively.

Timrå IK may have finished as the bottom playoff seed with 76 points, but the club was very dangerous in overtime. TIK led the league with seven OT wins to just one loss and 12 ties. That could bode well in the playoffs.

Finnish forward Mika Pyörälä led the TIK attack with 21 goals and 43 points, while wunderkind Magnus Pääjärvi-Svensson regularly drew NHL scouts to the team's games. The squad had the league's top goal-scoring defenseman this season. Finnish blueliner Mikko Lehtonen lit the lamp 15 times, including a dozen power-play markers. Veteran Johan Backlund logged 2,840 minutes in goal while appearing in 49 games.

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