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SM-Liiga semifinals set to start

by Bill Meltzer
The Finnish hockey season is getting down to the nitty gritty. The puck will drop on the two best-of-seven semifinal series Thursday. In one matchup, top-ranked JYP Jyväskylä will take on KalPa Kuopio. The other series is a rematch of last year's finals, with the Espoo Blues opposing Kärpät Oulu.

Three of the four semifinalists have never won the Kanada Malja (Canada Bowl), the trophy awarded to the playoff victor. Defending titlist Kärpät has won four of the last five Finnish championships, and reached the finals in six of the last eight years. This time around, however, the Oulu club's competitors find themselves on more equal footing than in past seasons. Following is a preview of the matchups.

JYP vs. KalPa

JYP Jyväskylä and KalPa Kuopio have both had resurgent seasons after years of foundering as also-rans in SM-Liiga. JYP finished in first place during the 2008-09 regular season, piling up 106 points at the end of the 58-game regular season. KalPa jumped up from 13th place (there are 14 teams in the league) last year to sixth, compiling 97 points.

In the quarterfinals, JYP dispatched a feisty TPS Turku team in six games, while KalPa also finished off HPK Hämeenlinna in six matches. The decisive game in the KalPa-HPK series was settled in overtime, as the Kuopio team twice battled back from behind and Toni Mäkiaho sealed the victory early in the extra frame.

Goaltending and strong team defense have been JYP's biggest assets all season. The tandem of veteran keeper Sinuhe Wallinheimo (1.63 goals-against average, .940 save percentage) and 25-year-old Pekka Tuokkola (1.96 GAA, .927 save percentage) has been the big story for JYP all season. Tuokkola played five of the six games in the TPS series, allowing just eight goals.

Jarkko Immonen (23 goals, 64 points, plus-21) led the JYP offensive attack all season, but managed just three points – all assists – in the TPS series. The scoring load was picked up by the likes of Antti Virtanen (3 goals in the quarterfinals, 22 in the regular season) and veteran Tuomas Pihlman (24 regular-season goals, two in the TPS series).

KalPa Kuopio's rise this season has coincided with the return of majority owner and team captain Sami Kapanen to active playing duty. After 12 years in the NHL with the Hartford Whalers, Carolina Hurricanes and Philadelphia Flyers, the 35-year-old Kapanen elected to focus on his team at home. The club leader pumped home four goals and added a pair of assists in the HPK series after posting 20 goals and 44 points to pace KalPa during the regular season.

Two other aging veterans, forward Kalle Sahlstedt and defenseman Mika Stromberg, have also helped anchor KalPa this season. Salhstedt produced 19 goals and 43 points during the regular season and four assists against HPK. Stromberg chipped in a plus-14 rating, 5 goals and 27 points from the blue line, while 22-year-old partner Tuomas Kiiskinen added 11 goals, 39 points and a plus-12.

In goal, 20-year-old Mika Järvinen had a strong season for KalPa, posting a 2.32 GAA and .911 save percentage. He won three of four starts in the HPK series, allowing just five goals.  Veteran Mika Oksa, 33, started 35 games in the regular season (2.27 GAA, .908 save percentage) and two games in the HPK series.

Blues vs. Kärpät

Whenever a team has as much success as Kärpät has had in recent years, it's inevitable that other teams – sometimes including NHL clubs – will lure away some its top players with more lucrative contracts. Kärpät spent much of the season trying to account for the losses of forwards Janne Pesonen and Hannes Hyvönen, as well as defenseman Mikko Lehtonen.

The team stumbled out of the gates early in the season, and was racked by injuries during the first half of the season. Ultimately, the Stoats got their act together, finishing the regular season with 97 points and then dismantling Jokerit Helsinki in five games.

The team from Oulu had three players crack the 20-goal mark in the regular season. Toni Koivisto led the way with 23 goals and 62 points before punishing Jokerit for 3 goals and 5 points in the quarterfinals. Jonas Andersson (24 goals, 57 points) also lit the lamp three times in the Jokerit series, while Daniel Corso (22 goals, 52 points in 41 games) was limited to two assists.

Last year, goaltender Tuomas Tarkki had a tremendous season from start to finish. Things didn't go as smoothly this year for the two time Urpo Ylönen Trophy (SM-Liiga equivalent to the Vezina) winner but he got in gear as the season moved along and finished with a 2.47 GAA and .914 save percentage. He allowed 10 goals in the five-game conquest of Jokerit.

Meanwhile, the Blues enjoyed a 100-point regular season campaign, trailing only JYP in the standings. But the club got all it could handle in the quarterfinals against the Lahti Pelicans. The Pelicans grabbed a three-games-to-two series lead before Espoo roared back with blowout wins on the road in Game 6 (7-2) and at home in Game 7 (8-2).

Blues forward Ben Eaves has been an offensive force in the playoffs after a modest showing (3 goals, 18 points, minus-4) in 22 regular season games. He tore apart the Pelicans' defense, especially in the last two games of the series, and finished the series with 14 points (2 goals, 12 assists). Fellow import Ryan Keller scored four times and added six assists against Lahti after a 21-goal, 55 point campaign in the regular seasons.

Erstwhile starting Blues goaltender Bernd Bruckler was limited to 28 regular-season games this year. In his stead, hulking 20-year old Mikko Koskinen opened eyes with a 1.91 GAA and .931 save percentage in 33 starts. He had a 2.25 GAA and .920 save percentage in the quarterfinals.

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