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Quarterfinal matchups set in Swedish playoffs

by Bill Meltzer

Skellefteå AIK team captain Mikael Renberg faces a tall order, leading his eighth-ranked club into a quarterfinal series against top-seeded HV 71 Jönköping.
The agony and ecstasy of playoff hockey is about to kick off in the Swedish Elite League. HV 71 Jönköping was the runaway winner during the 55-game Elitserien regular season and enters the quarterfinals as the favorite to win its third Swedish championship in club history. 

In the quarterfinals, HV 71 will face eighth-seeded Skellefteå AIK. In the other three series, second-ranked Linköpings HC will play Djurgårdens IF Stockholm; defending champion Modo Hockey Örnsköldsvik faces Timrå IK; and Färjestads BK takes on the Frölunda Indians of Gothenburg.

HV 71 vs. Skellefteå -- HV 71 Jönköping (31-13-11, 107 points) dominated the Swedish league this season. With 107 points, HV 71 finished a comfortable 15 points ahead of second-place Linköping. HV 71, whose unusual team name derives from the 1971 merger of the Husqvarna and Vätterstad athletic clubs, led the league in goals scored and allowed the second-fewest goals this season.

Back from a one-season stint in North America, veteran Swedish national-team goalie Stefan Liv started 46 games for HV 71 and posted a 2.26 goals-against average, five shutouts and a .916 save percentage.

HV 71's offense was led 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 homegrown left winger Martin Thörnberg (20 goals).

Skellefteå AIK gave HV 71 a tough battle during their five regular-season meetings this season. Although the Jönköping club won three of the five matches, two were decided by a single goal and SAIK skated off with 4-0 and 4-3 victories along the way.

Skellefteå (19-20-16, 75 points) had to battle for most of the season simply to secure the final playoff spot. Led by captain Mikael Renberg and a core of veterans with NHL and/or international experience, the team hung tough and scrapped its way to an eighth-place finish.

Shifty veteran left winger Anders Söderberg (21 goals, 46 points) led SAIK in scoring this season, followed by former Boston Bruins right winger Lee Goren (16 goals, 36 points). Renberg, a long-time NHL player, missed significant time due to complications from a broken jaw, but still managed 13 goals and 33 points in 41 games. Goaltender Andreas Hadelöv had a decent season, posting a 2.53 GAA and four shutouts.

HV 71's Davidsson scored three of his nine goals against Skellefteå, including shorthanded and power-play goals. In all, he had six points against SAIK in the five meetings. Thörnberg had three goals and four points. Goren led Skellefteå against Jönköping with three goals.

Linköping vs. Djurgården -- A year ago in the playoffs, Linköpings HC knocked off defending champion Färjestad in the semifinals and lost a hard-fought, six-game final to Modo. This season, while HV 71 scarcely was challenged for the top spot in Elitserien, Linköping (21-14-20, 92 points) improved by 10 points from last year to edge Modo for second place.

LHC won a league-high nine overtime games in a circuit that has eliminated the shootout and gone back to regular-season ties if there's no winner after 65 minutes. Linköping allowed exactly the same number of goals it did last season (153), but scored 15 more goals this season than it did in the 2006-07 campaign.

Linköping has relied heavily on its top line this season. Former Anaheim Ducks right wing Tony Mårtensson dressed in every game and led the Swedish Elite League with 67 points (17 goals, 50 assists). His linemate, former Modo, New York Islanders and Minnesota Wild center Mattias Weinhandl, paced the league with 35 goals and ranked second with 62 points.

Former Leksands IF winger Niklas Persson (10 goals, 32 points) provided supporting offense for LHC, along with former Toronto Maple Leafs farmhand Mikael Håkansson (11 goals, 32 points). Veteran defensive defenseman Andreas Pihl posted a team-best plus-17, while 24-year-old former Pittsburgh Penguins blue-line prospect Daniel Fernholm led LHC defensemen with eight goals and 29 points.

A year ago, LHC released veteran Czech goaltender Roman Cechmanek midway through the season and replaced him with Slovak keeper Rastislav Stana. This year, the former Washington Capitals backup appeared in 40 games (2.76 GAA, .901 save percentage, two shutouts) and will start for LHC in the playoffs.

Linköping never has won the Swedish championship. Conversely, Djurgårdens IF (21-20-14, 79 points) has won a record 16 titles in its storied history, but is rebounding from some hard economic times and a corresponding fall in the standings. With the club unable to compete for the type of high-priced veteran talent it once routinely brought to Stockholm, DIF has placed a stronger emphasis on developing its younger talent.

Djurgården gave Linköping a hard time during their regular-season meetings, winning three of five games, including 4-0 and 6-0 shutout victories.

DIF's commitment to youth has started to pay off. Last season's Elitserien rookie of the year, Nashville Predators prospect Patric Hörnqvist, 21, overcame a slow start to finish with 18 goals and 30 points. The club got stellar goaltending from 22-year-old Detroit Red Wings prospect Daniel Larsson (2.29 GAA, .921 save percentage, six shutouts).

Djurgården also got offense from Detroit left wing prospect Dick Axelsson (12 goals, 25 points in 47 games) and 23-year-old winger Nicklas Danielsson, a Vancouver Canucks fifth-round pick from the 2003 NHL Entry Draft who contributed 14 goals and 32 points.

DIF also has some solid holdover veterans. Former Edmonton Oilers right wing Fredrik Bremberg led the squad with 34 assists and 45 points this season. Twelve-season veteran Kristoffer Ottosson contributed 11 goals and 30 points. Homegrown product Niklas Anger, 30, returned from Switzerland to post nine goals and 31 points. Former Tampa Bay Lightning left wing Jimmie Ölvestad (seven points, 111 penalty minutes) is the team captain.

The DIF backline features former NHLer Ossi Väänänen (seven goals, 15 points, plus-12, 102 penalty minutes), Timmy Pettersson (a team best plus-17), Jiri Marusak (six goals) and former Philadelphia Flyer David Printz.

Modo vs. Timrå -- Defending Swedish champion Modo Hockey (26-22-7, 90 points) experienced a bit of a championship celebration hangover early in the 2007-08 season. It also had a series of key injuries, including one that prematurely ended the season of top-pairing defenseman Mattias Timander, but played a strong second-half of the season to claim third place in the standings.

Modo is backstopped by talented, but volatile, Slovak goaltender Karol Krizan (2.69 GAA, .910 save percentage, seven shutouts, and 58 penalty minutes).

Offensively, Modo's power play was its lifeline during the regular season. The club scored a league-best 63 goals on the man advantage this season, and boasts two of the top power forwards in the league. Gritty veteran left winger Magnus Wernblom (27 goals) led the league with 19 power-play goals, followed by teammate Per-Åge Skrøder (13 power-play goals). Wernblom now is second on the all-time Elitserien goal-scoring list.

The crux of Modo's leadership, however, lies in its core of home-grown former NHLers who have returned to their mother club. Andreas Salomonsson led the squad with 43 points this season. Former Selke Trophy candidate Niklas Sundström posted 37 points and a plus-eight rating despite being limited to 45 games. Team captain Per Svartvadet had eight goals and 34 points.

The sixth-seeded Timrå IK Red Eagles (23-23-9, 83 points) endured inconsistent stretches through much of the season. The club struggled mightily on the road while looking strong in the friendly confines of its home, E.ON Arena.

In the Modo-TIK season series, Timrå won the first two games, but Modo came back to win the last three in a row.

Apart from goaltender Johan Backlund (2.30 GAA, .908 save percentage, six shutouts), TIK was paced this season by a quartet of Finns. Former Colorado Avalanche center Riku Hahl (10 goals, 41 points) led the team in scoring. Mika Pyörälä was lured away from SM-Liiga champion Kärpät Oulu to provide 17 goals, 33 points and a plus-11 rating on a club that gave up more goals than it scored. Former Anaheim Ducks forward Timo Pärssinen topped the squad with six power-play goals, while defenseman Petri Kokko led the blueliners with 22 points. 

Färjestad vs. Frölunda -- For much of the last decade, these two clubs, along with HV 71, have been the top contenders for the Swedish championship. Färjestads BK and the Frölunda Indians are used to meeting deep in the playoffs. This season, though, neither club is favored to go all the way, but has the experience and know-how to be dangerous opponents.

Veteran Modo Hockey left wing Magnus Wernblom led the Swedish Elite League with 19 power-play goals in 2007-08. His third-ranked team will attempt to defend the championship it won last season.
Fourth-seeded Färjestads BK (25-19-11, 89 points) maintains a potent offense but is not as formidable as in recent seasons. Last season, the club saw its streak of six consecutive appearances in the final -- including two championships -- come to an end, despite a first-place finish in the regular season.

This season, the club was inconsistent defensively. It also had to endure what may be a career-threatening back injury suffered by its long-time captain, Jörgen Jönsson, and the departure of veteran sniper Jonas Höglund.

For good measure, FBK also saw four different goaltenders earn time in net after projected starter Christopher Heino-Lindberg (2.67 GAA, .910 save percentage, one shutout) missed about a month due to an early-season injury. Heino-Lindberg will start in the playoffs, but fellow 23-year-old Jonas Gustavsson (2.40 GAA, .919 save percentage, two shutouts in 20 appearances) arguably outplayed the former Montreal Canadiens prospect.

Despite its problems, veteran-laden Färjestad is capable of putting together stretches of play that fit right in line with its recent glories. Former Minnesota Wild center Rickard Wallin (17 goals, 40 points) led the team offensively. Veteran sniper Pelle Prestberg had 26 goals (12 on the power play), while one-time Los Angeles Kings pivot Esa Pirnes chipped in 15 goals and won 54 percent of his faceoffs.

Among FBK's younger players, center Mikael Johansson and left wing Fabian Brunnström were two of the brightest spots on the club. The 23-year-old Johansson, a ninth-round Detroit Red Wings NHL Draft pick in 2003, provided clutch two-way play with 15 goals, 39 points and a plus-11 rating in 53 games. The much sought-after Brunnström scored nine goals and 37 points in his first Elitserien season.

The Frölunda Indians, winners of the 2002-03 and 2004-05 Swedish championships, took a mighty tumble last season. The perennial contender never recovered from a horrendous start and missed the playoffs. This season, Frölunda (23-22-10, 82 points) had some ups and downs but never was too far from the middle of the pack. The club rediscovered its scoring touch this season (158 goals, fourth in the league) and was tough to beat on home ice (15-8-5).

Team defense will decide how far the Indians go this spring. The club's 157 goals-against were the most allowed by any playoff team, and the 97 goals it allowed on the road was the second-worst mark in the league.

Färjestad took three of the five games the teams played this season, scoring four or more goals each time. But the boys from Gothenburg also pitched a pair of shutouts and blew out the Karlstad club. Former New Jersey Devils prospect Ari Ahonen (2.52 GAA, .897 save percentage, four shutouts) will start in net for Frölunda.

Offensively, the Indians were led by a veteran trio this season: Former NHLer Niklas Andersson produced a team-high 37 assists and 49 points. Left winger Tomi Kallio (27 goals, 47 points) has found a long-term hockey home in Frölunda after bouncing between three NHL clubs in a short period of time. Right winger Magnus Kahnberg (16 goals, 37 points) has spent his entire career with Frölunda except for one minor-league campaign in North America.


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