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SM Liiga playoff picture beginning to take shape

by Bill Meltzer
The SM-Liiga regular season is about to enter the stretch drive. With each club having either 16 or 17 games remaining in the 58-game campaign, the Finnish playoff picture has already started to come into fairly clear focus.
The playoffs begin on March 12.

JYP Jyvyskyla has a stranglehold on first place in the 14-team league, currently enjoying a 10-point cushion over second place Assat Pori. With six first-round playoff byes at stake, sixth-place Lukko Rauma holds a five-point advantage on the Espoo Blues and KalPa Kuopio.

The 10th and final postseason spot is a two-horse race. That seed is currently occupied by Ilves Tampere, but former league powerhouse Karpat Oulu is just one point off the pace. It is unlikely that any of the bottom three teams in the standings will be able to mount a successful push for the postseason. Lahti Pelicans, in 12th place, are 11 points behind Ilves.

"We're happy to have Joonas on the team. He's a good young puck-moving defenseman and he has had success in the league before. We think he can help us out in several areas." -- Sami Kapanen

Following is a look at some key recent developments in the league, as teams gear up to push for a higher playoff seeding or regroup with the future in mind:

Flyers loan Lehtivuori to KalPa – One year ago, Philadelphia Flyers defense prospect Joonas Lehtivuori enjoyed a successful rookie season in the American Hockey League for the Adirondack Phantoms. This season, however, little has gone right for Lehtivuori amidst a disastrous campaign for Philadelphia's top farm team.

At Lehtivuori's behest, the Flyers have allowed the 22-year-old defenseman to return home to Finland. He has been loaned to KalPa Kuopio for the rest of the season. KalPa's majority owner is former Flyers forward Sami Kapanen. Its minority owners include current Flyers defenseman Kimmo Timonen and left winger Scott Hartnell.

"We're happy to have Joonas on the team. He's a good young puck-moving defenseman and he has had success in the league before. We think he can help us out in several areas," said Kapanen.

A product of the Ilves Tampere system, Lehtivuori was drafted by Philadelphia in the fourth round (No. 101) of the 2006 Entry Draft. At age 19, he had a breakthrough season for Ilves in 2007-08, tallying 8 goals and 21 points in 48 games despite receiving third-pairing ice time during the first half of the season. He also represented Finland at a pair of World Junior Championships.

After signing a three-year entry level contract with Philadelphia in 2009, Lehtivuori posted 5 goals and 23 points in 68 games for Adirondack last season. His minus-7 plus-minus rating was actually one of the better totals on a weak Phantoms clubs. Despite his lack of size (a generously listed 5-foot-11, 180 pounds), Lehtivuori was widely considered the most polished of three rookie defensemen on the club, surpassing more highly hyped teammates Kevin Marshall and Marc-Andre Bourdon.

The 2010-11 season went awry quickly for Lehtivuori, however. For one thing, he knew going into the season that it was going to be difficult to earn his first call-up to the NHL. During the offseason, Philadelphia bolstered its defense with the additions of veterans Andrej Meszaros, Sean O'Donnell and Matt Walker. He also had second-year NHL player Oskars Bartulis ahead of him. Secondly, the roster of his Phantoms team was filled with rookies and second-season players, and was soon engulfed in locker room turmoil.

The team immediately sank to the bottom of the league, and Lehtivuori was quickly leapfrogged on the depth charts by Swedish defenseman Erik Gustafsson. As Lehtivuori continued to struggle and the club later reacquired offensive-minded defenseman Danny Syvret, the young Finn eventually ended up being a healthy scratch. In 32 games for Adirondack, Lehtivuori produced 2 goals, 9 points and a minus-24 rating.

Speaking to Finnish outlet YLE Savo, Lehtivuori said, "We won like two games out of the first twenty. You're pretty down after that…. They switched coaches [twice] and my ice time started going down. We played old-time hockey where we just dumped and chased. That's not the kind of hockey that highlights my strengths."

Lehtivuori also admitted to the home media that he did not enjoy living in Glens Falls and felt a bit homesick shortly prior to his return. He has one season remaining on his NHL entry level contract, but his return to North America next season depends on what happens the rest of this campaign and during the offseason.

Lehtivuori made his KalPa debut Tuesday, playing 20 minutes, 27 seconds as the team grabbed a 2-1 victory against TPS Turku. Although he did not record a point in the game, Lehtivuori registered two shots on goal.

KalPa has been reasonably solid defensively this season, ranking sixth in the league with 107 goals allowed in 42 games. The club ranks ninth offensively, with an identical 107 goals scored. The hope in acquiring Lehtivuori is that he can help the club pick up the pace a bit in both areas. Among his new teammates is Jussi Timonen, the younger brother of Kimmo and a former Flyers/Phantoms defenseman.

Lindgren leading Lukko – As with Lehtivuori, Perttu Lindgren is an Ilves Tampere product who returned home to Finland this season after trying his hand at North American hockey.

The move has been a big success for the 23-year-old center.

Lindgren currently finds himself atop the SM-Liiga scoring charts, tallying 48 points (18 goals, 30 assists) in just 39 games played. His closest pursuer is veteran HIFK forward Ville Peltonen (44 points).

Drafted by the Dallas Stars in the third round (No. 75) of the 2005 Entry Draft, Lindgren spent last season in American Hockey League with the Texas Stars, where he scored 14 goals and 47 points in the regular season before compiling 17 playoff points in 24 games en route to the Calder Cup Finals. Lindgren dressed in one NHL game with the big club, skating 10 shifts and playing 8:33 in a 4-1 loss to the Los Angeles Kings on Oct. 19, 2009. Following the season, Lindgren signed with Lukko Rauma.

Lindgren had a previous one-year stint with Lukko. After making his North American debut by playing 69 games for the Stars' top minor league affiliate (then located in Iowa) in 2007-08, he spent the next season in Rauma. Lindgren played reasonably well for Lukko the first time around (5 goals, 24 points in 49 games) but is more mature player now. Even after enduring a four-game point drought, he did not start to press.

"I feel more relaxed and confident, and that's the most important thing," he said after a recent three-point effort against Assat Pori.

Lindgren currently ranks fifth in the league goal-scoring charts, five goals behind league leader Antti Pihlstrom (JYP). He is two assists ahead of teammate Kurtis MacLean for the league lead. With 125 goals, Lukko ranks third offensively in SM-Liiga. Only HIFK (139 goals) and JYP (133 goals) have lit the lamp more often.

TPS looks to regroup – One year ago, TPS Turku made an unexpected return to glory. Arguably the most successful team in Finland from the late 1980s to early 2000s with eight championships between 1988-89 and 2000-01, the franchise began to struggle in more recent years. After steadily slipping in standings, the club enjoyed a Cinderella season in 2009-10, squeaking into the playoffs but getting hot at just the right time. When all was said and done, TPS celebrated its 11th Finnish championship.

The magic has worn off this season.

TPS is buried in last place in SM-Liiga, with virtually no chance of making the playoffs. With 36 points and 17 games remaining, TPS is 17 points out of 10th place. The cellar-dwelling club is three points behind 13th-place SaiPa, and has allowed a league-worst 141 goals while scoring just 95.

Kai Suikkanen, who was a shoo-in for Coach of the Year honors last season, left the club after the season to accept the head coaching job for the KHL's Lokomotiv Yaroslavl. He was replaced by the relatively inexperienced Riku-Petteri Lehtonen.

Suikkanen only lasted until November with Lokomotiv.

Meanwhile, the club he left behind has been a mess on the ice. Lines have been juggled constantly, captain Aki Berg has been limited to 10 games, and the club has already dressed 30 different skaters in a vain effort to find some chemistry.

About the only thing that has gone right for TPS this season has been the play of 24-year-old forward Antti Erkinjuntti. After showing promise last season and earning 8 points in 15 playoff games en route to the championship, Erkinjuntti has taken the next step forward this season. He leads TPS with 10 goals and 30 points in 40 games and is one of the few players on the club who is not currently minus-rated for the season.
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