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Storr leads surprising playoff charge in Germany

by Bill Meltzer

In any league or language, hot goaltending translates to playoff success. On the road to the championship, every club needs its goaltender to steal a game or two in which the team is outplayed. That's especially true for playoff underdogs like the DEG Metro Stars of Germany's DEL.

In a playoff year that has been filled with overtime thrillers and clutch saves in most of the series played to date, the play of DEG goaltender Jamie Storr has stood out. The Metro Stars recently fashioned an historic playoff upset, becoming the lowest-ranked team to knock off the playoff top seed in DEL history.

The Dusseldorf-based club underachieved throughout the 2007-08 regular season. A second-place finisher last season, the Metro Stars limped through a disappointing ninth-place campaign this year. Lack of scoring was a major issue for head coach Slavomir Lehner's club.

The Metro Stars' 169 goals during the 56-game regular season ranked 11th in the 15-team league. No DEG player reached the 20-goal mark. Storr's solid season (2.54 goals against average, .913 save percentage in 38 starts) helped the club edge out a playoff spot that at one point this season seemed to be slipping out of the team's grasp.

Under the DEL's postseason format, the top six teams receive first-round byes, while the seventh- to 10th-place clubs square off in a pair of best-of-three miniseries. Thereafter, all series are played in a best-of-seven format. In the first round, DEG played the eighth-place Hannover Scorpions, while the seventh-place Hamburg Freezers faced off with the 10th-place Ingolstadt Panthers.

Storr's club got in trouble right away against the Scorpions, succumbing to Hannover in the opener, 5-3, despite leading 3-0 early in the game. DEG appeared headed for a quick, unceremonious exit. But ever since, Storr has strapped his club to his back, and not allowed it to lose. To date, the former NHLer boasts a 2.00 goals-against average in the playoffs and a phenomenal .943 save percentage.

Dusseldorf staved off elimination with a 4-2 win on home ice before the clubs engaged in a tense, double-overtime showdown in the deciding game in Hannover. Storr kept the game knotted, 1-1, and made a mind-boggling save on one-time Colgate University standout Adam Mitchell early in the second overtime to keep his club alive. Minutes later, former Vancouver Canucks center Brandon Reid won the game and series for the Metro Stars.

Heading into the quarterfinal round, however, the Metro Stars were considered a major underdog against the top-ranked Sinupret Ice Tigers of Nuremberg. No first-place team had ever been knocked out in the quarterfinals by a qualification round winner.

The on-paper edge in this series favored the Ice Tigers in almost every regard. The one potential exception: the goaltending matchup between Storr and Dimitrij Kotschnew.

But the Ice Tigers featured one of the most potent offenses in the DEL and the league's stingiest defense. Offensively, the Ice Tigers were led by former New Jersey Devils prospect Ahren Spylo (known as Ahren Nittel outside Germany), who racked up a remarkable 41 goals in 56 games this year.

As expected, the Ice Tigers held the advantage in territorial play through much of the series. But after Nuremberg edged DEG by a 3-2 count in the opener, Storr slammed the door whenever his club needed a crucial save.

In the next game, he made a 2-1 lead stand up for 57 minutes until a power-play goal by top DEG postseason scorer Patrick Reimer gave the Metro Stars some much-needed insurance. As the series shifted back to Nuremberg for the third game, Storr held off waves of attack and once again yielded just a single goal. DEG prevailed, 2-1.

By now, Storr had begun to get in the Ice Tigers' heads, causing Benoit Laporte's team to play uncharacteristically sloppy hockey. The former Los Angeles Kings starter turned back 31 shots, while the Metro Stars repeatedly counterpunched for goals. Storr even registered an assist in the tilt as DEG won a 6-3 stunner. 

A crowd of 6,553 fans gathered in Dusseldorf's ISS Ice Dome for the fifth game of the series. The confidence of the Ice Tigers continued to fade as Storr held the contest scoreless through the opening period and Reimer tallied on the power play just 19 seconds into the second period. Jason Pinizzotto doubled the DEG lead midway through the middle stanza, before Nuremberg's Adrian Grygiel finally got on the board late in the second period.

Any momentum the Ice Tigers gained from the Grygiel was quickly erased when veteran forward Klaus Klathan gave DEG a 3-1 lead early in the final period. Storr, who made 32 saves, enabled the lead stand up. Nuremberg got back within a goal as Spylo finally solved the DEG netminder with a shade over six minutes left in regulation. But the Ice Tigers got no closer, and the five-game upset was complete.

Despite the historic victory over Sinupret, things won't get much easier for the Metro Stars over the remainder of the playoffs. In the semifinals, DEG will take on the second-seeded Eisbären Berlin (Berlin Polar Bears).  The Berlin club stumbled a year ago but won consecutive German championships in 2004-05 and 2005-06.

For DEG to pull off another upset, Storr will have to stay in peak form in goal. The Polar Bears boasted the DEL's most potent offensive attack this season. Four Berlin players topped 50 points this season, including veteran Berlin star Steve Walker's 27-goal, 87-point campaign. Former NHL players Nathan Robinson, Stefan Ustorf and Deron Quint also reached the plateau.

Despite the injured Walker's absence from the lineup in the playoffs, Berlin has continued scoring at a healthy clip in the postseason. In Berlin's five-game win over Hannover in the semifinals, the Polar Bears outscored the Scorpions by a combined score of 25-13.

In the semifinals, Storr will be opposed in goal by one-time Carolina Hurricanes goaltending prospect Rob Zepp. Now in his third season in Europe and first in Germany, Zepp has posted a 2.39 GAA and .897 save percentage through his first five playoff starts.

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