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Swiss National League playoffs heat up

by Bill Meltzer
One of the main reasons why Switzerland has long been a preferred destination for former NHL players and free agents seeking a place to play in between NHL contracts is the more relaxed schedule (and greatly reduced travel) of the Swiss National League. While NHL teams are currently battling through the stretch drive of the 82-game regular season and prepare for the marathon-like four rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the 50-game regular season of the Swiss National League is already complete and the three-round playoffs are under way.

The semifinals begin Thursday with series between top-seeded SC Bern and the fifth-ranked Kloten Flyers and second-place Geneva playing third-seeded EV Zug. The quarterfinals saw several hotly contested series, and the semis have the potential of being even better.

In the quarters, Bern had little trouble dispatching HC Lugano in four-straight games. SC Bern’s leading regular season scorer, Ivo Rüthemann, led the way with 4 goals and 8 points after posting 24 goals and 42 points during the regular season. Meanwhile, former Atlanta Thrashers right winger Jean-Pierre Vigier (whose 13 goals and 38 points during the regular season was good for third on his team) had 3 goals and 6 points in the sweep. Lugano, which featured the league’s top scorer in former NHL forward Randy Robitaille (16 goals, 65 points) and third-leading scorer in Canadian-born Swiss Olympian Hnat Domenichelli (27 goals, 62 points) was held to two goals or less in three of the four games in the series. The club with the highest attendance anywhere in Europe, Bern played to capacity crowds in its two home games in the first round, bringing out 16,751 fans to both games.

Geneva had a much tougher time in its first-round series with seventh-ranked Fribourg. At one point, Geneva trailed the series three games to one and had to go overtime in Game 5 to keep the series alive. After former NHLer Marek Malik scored the OT game winner to force a sixth game, Geneva came back from a 1-0 deficit to silence the Fribourg crowd and hang on for a 3-2 win. In the decisive seventh game, second-period goals by Daniel Rubin, Thomas Deruns and the first of two tallies by Tony Salmelainen spearheaded a 5-2 win. For the series, Salmelainen had 6 goals and 10 points. He ranked fifth in the league during the regular season, scoring 25 goals and 28 assists.

Like Geneva, EV Zug had to go the distance to turn back the ZSC Lions. In this series, which saw Finnish countrymen Jussi Markkanen (EV Zug) and Ari Sulander (ZSC Lions) match up head-to-head in goal, the favored Zug was the club that held a 3-1 series lead. The Lions promptly roared back to score 6-1 and 6-2 blowout victories in the next two games. In the seventh game, goals by 38-year-old Dale McTavish and 38-year-old Swiss league and Swiss national team mainstay Paul DiPietro gave the home team a 2-0 lead heading into the third period. Patrik Bärtschi got the Lions back within a goal late in regulation, but Markkanen and his club held on for the series-clinching win. For the series, McTavish (4 goals, 9 points) and the league’s second-leading regular season scorer, Josh Holden (30 regular-season goals, 63 regular-season points, 4 goals and 8 points in the series against Zurich) paced the EV Zug attack.

In the other quarterfinal series, defending champion HC Davos was upended in six games by the Kloten Flyers. Davos took a 4-3 overtime decision in the series opener after blowing the 3-1 lead they took into the third period. A four-goal explosion by Kloten in the third period of Game 2 led the fifth-seeded club to a 7-4 victory. Davos bounced back in the next game to grab a 2-1 series lead with a 3-2 win on home ice, as former Chicago Blackhawks forward Reto Von Arx tallied a goal and two assists in the first period and his club held on the rest of the way. For the series, Tommi Santala (4 goals, 7 points) and Sven Lindemann (2 goals, 7 points) led the offensive attack for the Flyers.

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