Four teams, one dream: No matter the hockey league, playoff semifinals are a time of agony and anticipation. The recently completed semifinals of the Asia League of Ice Hockey (ALIH) were no exception.
One series pitted the second-place Seibu Prince Rabbits against the third-place Oji Eagles. Seibu made quick work of Oji, sweeping the best-of-seven series while encountering relatively little difficulty along the way. But there haven't been many happy faces in the Prince Rabbits' camp.
Despite the team's history of on-ice success -- 13 championships in the former Japan Hockey League and a pair of Asia League crowns (most recently in the 2005-06 season) -- the Seibu club will fold after this season even if it wins in the finals.
On Dec. 19, 2008, parent company Prince Hotels and Resorts announced its intention to fold the team at the conclusion of the 2008-09 season, citing funding difficulties in the midst of the global recession.
Formerly known as the Kokudo Bunnies and Kokudo Lions, the Prince Rabbits have had a complicated history from an ownership and financial standpoint. The team merged with the Seibu Railways Ice Hockey Club in 2003 and moved its home base to the Suntory Higashi-fushimi Ice Arena in Tokyo. Three years later, then-parent company Kokudo ceased to exist after it was bought out by Prince Hotels. The team then adopted Prince Rabbits as its name.
The other semifinal saw Anyang Hall, the top team in the regular season, take on the fourth-place Nippon Paper Cranes. In the end, Anyang Halla failed in its mission to become the first Korean club to win the Asian championship. It happened in heartbreaking fashion, as the club narrowly lost Games 6 and 7 at home.
When the series headed to Anyang Sports Complex Arena in South Korea with Halla holding a 3-2 series lead, many thought the series was as good as done, as Halla went 13-2-1-1-1(W-L-OTL-SOW-SOL) at home.
In Game 6, Yoshinori IImura's goal 14:23 into overtime gave the Cranes a 3-2 victory to force Game 7. On the play, Ilmura drove to the net and beat goalie Ho-Sung Song to the glove side. Halla only could lament their inability to convert a breakaway and a point-blank chance earlier in the extra session. The Korean club also came up empty on the power play in the game, continuing a struggle that had gone on for the entire series.
Twenty-four hours later, Ilmura was the hero of Game 7. With the score tied 2-2 heading in the final seconds of regulation, the match and series appeared destined for overtime. But with 12 seconds left in the third period, Ilmura fired a shot that beat Song over the shoulder. The crowd fell silent as the Cranes players exalted.
"We all thought we would win at least one game in our home building," Halla coach Eui-Shik Shim told the team's Web site. "Losing in overtime in last night's game was actually a shock, but losing in Game 7 is more painful then I imagined. But I am very proud of our boys. We've done a lot this season, and proved that we can be good as any Japanese club."
, a 2002 third-round pick of the Edmonton Oilers
who re-signed for three more years with the club last month, also was disappointed.
"It's hard for everyone," he said, "but I thought we did a great job this season. We came back from behind and won so many games that way during the season, and only good teams can do so."
In the best-of-seven finals, the Cranes hold a 2-1 series lead. The Cranes took Game 1, 4-2, but the Prince Rabbits evened the ledger with a 3-2 win in Game 2. The Cranes responded with a convincing 5-1 romp in Game 3. Game 4 is scheduled for March 18; if the series goes seven games, the decisive championship game will be held March 23.