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November DEL Roundup: Scorpions still have sting

by Bill Meltzer
There is a tight race atop Germany's top hockey league through the first two months of the DEL regular season. With most clubs having played 15-18 games to date (the Augsburg Panthers have played just 14, while EHC Munich has played a league-high 19), there is a mere six points separating the first-place Ice Tigers of Nuremberg from the seventh-place Adler Mannheim (Mannheim Eagles). The Ice Tigers lead the league with 33 points to date.

Until proven otherwise, however, the DEL team to beat is the defending champion Hannover Scorpions. The club currently is one point behind Nuremberg, with a game in hand. The Scorpions are the highest-scoring team in the league, averaging 3.59 goals per game.

The stingiest defensive team so far has been third-place Grizzly Adams Wolfsburg, which has given up a mere 2.06 goals per game. The Wolfsburg club, which has 30 points, has played two fewer games than Hannover and three fewer than Nuremberg. Perennial contender Eisbären Berlin (Berlin Polar Bears) is fourth, one point behind Wolfsburg, having played one more game. The Berlin club has won four of the last six German championships.

Here some other happenings in the DEL through the first two months of the 2010-11 season:

Scoring leader Mitchell a model of consistency -- Now in his fourth season as a member of the Hannover Scorpions and sixth season in German hockey, Canadian import player Adam Mitchell has emerged as a dominant offensive force. The 28-year-old native of Port Elgin, Ont. is tied for the league scoring lead with 25 points (8 goals, 17 assists) in 17 games. Straubing Tigers center Derek Hahn also has 25 points.

Mitchell has been a model of consistency for his club all season. With the exception of Hannover's 3-0 shutout loss to EHC Munich on Oct. 10, Mitchell has at least one point in every game so far this season. The right wing currently has a six-game scoring streak, during which he has 3 goals and 7 assists.

"Adam played an important role in the championship last season, and he's a big weapon for our team this year, especially on the power play (12 points). He knows how to get to the net and is very alert to the play," said first-year Scorpions coach Toni Krinner.

Mitchell was an unheralded player upon his arrival in Germany in 2005. The Colgate University graduate had a solid NCAA career but failed to catch the eye of NHL scouts. Likewise, he was not highly recruited by clubs in the top European leagues, and had to settle for a spot with German minor-league team Landsberg 2000 EV. In his first season, 2005-06, he helped the team earn a promotion from the Oberliga (second-tier minor league) to the second Bundesliga (the top minor league despite the "second" designation, which reflects the fact that the DEL is the first Bundesliga). That season, Mitchell posted 46 goals and 95 points in 50 games, albeit against a lower caliber of opposition.

After spending one-plus additional seasons with Landsberg in the second division, Mitchell rose to the DEL when he joined Hannover midway through the 2007-08 season. He wasn't an over-night sensation, but the 5-foot-10, 191-pound forward soon established himself as a reliable offensive player. He especially was effective in the 2010 postseason, scoring 13 points in 11 games en route to helping the Scorpions win their first DEL championship.

Mitchell is surrounded by a talented cast of veteran players, many of whom have NHL experience. Among the Scorpions' most prominent players are former NHL forward Chris Herperger (7 goals, 18 points), veteran Czech center Tomas Dolak (10 goals, 22 points), one-time St. Louis Blues prospect Tore Vikingstad (20 assists, 21 points) and ex-NHL defensemen Sascha Goc (6 goals, 19 points to lead all defensemen in the DEL scoring race) and Aris Brimanis. In goal, former Los Angeles Kings backup and KHL standout Travis Scott has gotten seven starts.

Ice Tigers back from the brink of extinction -- Less than two years ago, it seemed as though the Nuremberg Ice Tigers were destined to fold operations after nearly 30 years of existence. The club was formed in 1980 shortly after the venerable SC Nuremberg club disbanded. It experienced varying degrees of success over the years, coming closest to winning the DEL in 1997-98, when it lost in the finals to Adler Mannheim. 

In March 2006, a sponsorship agreement with Bionorica AG brought new hope to the club (which officially took on the name Sinupret Ice Tigers). But the optimism was short-lived. In late 2008, the hockey organization declared that it was financially unable to continue operations. The situation became worse in March 2009, when Bionorica ended its sponsorship of the club after a three-year affiliation. Just when it appeared the team was headed to irretrievable bankruptcy, the local business community in Nuremberg rallied to save the team. Led by jeweler Thomas Sabo, the group formed a new sponsorship deal with the club. Per the agreement, the team's official name was changed to the Thomas Sabo Ice Tigers.

Now the team sits in first place in the DEL in the early stages of the 2010-11 season. There are few big names on the roster and its plus-2 goal differential (53-51) may not seem impressive, but the team's balanced attack has gotten the job done.

Led by former Vancouver Canucks and Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Brad Leeb (5 goals, 16 points), eight different Ice Tigers forwards already have hit double-digits in points, including Brad’s older brother, center Greg Leeb (6 goals, 14 points). NHL followers may recognize the name of two of the club's other top performers: former Montreal Canadiens first-round pick Eric Chouinard (team-high 9 goals, 13 points) and gritty former Calgary Flames fan favorite Clarke Wilm (2 goals, 11 points, team-high 36 penalty minutes). 

Native German goalie Patrick Ehelechner has proven himself a more-than-capable No. 1 DEL goalie over the last two seasons with the Ice Tigers. The 2003 fifth-round pick of the San Jose Sharks has a big frame (6-foot-2, 176 pounds) that he uses effectively. In 15 starts this season, Ehelechner ranks among the league's top goaltenders with a 2.42 goals-against average and .924 save percentage. The 26-year-old netminder registered a 42-save shutout of Adler Mannheim in his most recent start.

Brathwaite an iron man for Adler -- Well-traveled veteran goaltender Fred Brathwaite has been one of the most popular players, with teammates and fans, on every team for which he has played. The 5-foot-7 goalie never has let his lack of size get in the way of challenging shooters and making acrobatic stops. He currently ranks third in the league with a .931 save percentage and 2.20 GAA, but first among goalies who have made 10 or more starts.

The soon-to-be 38-year-old has not let age stand in his way of playing as many minutes as his team needs. Primarily a backup in the NHL, Brathwaite has been an undisputed No. 1 goalie in the KHL (Ak Bars Kazan) and DEL. Now in his third season with Adler Mannheim, Brathwaite leads the league in minutes played. He has started 17 of his club's 18 games, logging 1,035 minutes so far. This is nothing new for Brathwaite, who started 49 of 56 games for the Eagles in 2008-09 and made 47 starts last season.

"Freddie is the backbone of our team. We know he's going to give a chance to win almost every night, because he keeps us in games," said teammate Nathan Robinson, who has played with Brathwaite the last two seasons in Mannheim and is playing in his fifth season in Germany.

The seventh-place Eagles are a club built from the goal line out. Apart from Brathwaite, the club has been led by its defense corps but needs its forwards to start picking up the pace offensively. The club has scored 38 goals to date and team's top two scorers are defensemen. Former AHL blueliner Mario Scalzo leads the way with 13 points, followed by former Nashville Predators farmhand Robert Dietrich (11 assists).

The club also features Yannick Seidenberg (6 goals, 8 points), who is the younger brother of the Boston Bruins' Dennis Seidenberg. The club's other top veterans include NHL alumni Justin Papineau (4 goals, 8 points in 13 games) and Robinson (5 goals, 8 points).
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