Goaltending is hockey's ultimate high-pressure position. No player on the ice carries more weight on his shoulders to play virtually mistake-free hockey than the man behind the mask. That is especially true in Sweden's Elitserien, which has become of one of the lowest-scoring leagues in the hockey world.
This season, the highest-scoring team in the league, AIK Stockholm, has averaged a modest 2.75 goals per game, while the stingiest defensive team, first-place Lulea HC, has allowed just 98 goals through 51 games (1.92 per game). The worst defensive team, last-place Timra IK, has allowed 3.29 goals per game.
With goals being so scarce in Elitserien, the league's goalies bear enormous responsibility to stop everything they can see and have a chance to reach. The team that scores first usually wins and it is tough to recover from a single "soft" goal. While this is true in any league in the world, Elitserien is among the toughest for a team to successfully play comeback hockey.
has performed significantly better (1.80 GAA, .934 save percentage, three shutouts) than his veteran counterpart Andreas Hadelov (2.66 GAA, .891 save percentage, one shutout). (Photo: skellefteaaik.se)
There has been a changing of the guard of sorts in the league's goaltending pecking order this season, as three of the league's top four goalies are younger than 23 -- Frolunda HC Gothenburg's Frederik Andersen
, Skelleftea AIK's Joacim Eriksson
and Lulea HF's Johan Gustafsson
Andersen, who turned 22 in October, is a product of Frolunda's renowned pipeline to his native Denmark, a path previously traveled by current NHL players Lars Eller
, Mikkel Boedker
and Philip Larsen
. Drafted by the Carolina Hurricanes
in the seventh round (No. 187) of the 2010 Entry Draft, Andersen is in his first season with Frolunda after previously starring for Herning and Frederikshavn in Denmark's domestic league.
Although Andersen was impressive for overmatched Danish teams at IIHF World Junior Championships and World Championships, he lacked prolonged high-level experience until joining Frolunda this season. Big, athletic and positionally sound, Andersen stepped right in for Frolunda and has done a tremendous job in tandem with 20-year-old Nashville Predators
prospect Magnus Hellberg
(a 2011 second-round pick).
Frolunda was in a three-way tie for second-place in Elitserien through Game No. 52 of the 55-game regular season, but was surpassed Tuesday by Skelleftea and dropped to third place, ahead of Brynas via goal-differential tiebreaker. However, it's been a big improvement for Frolunda after missing the playoffs last season. The play of Andersen, who has started 37 games, has been one of the biggest reasons.
The Dane leads the league in all three major goaltending categories -- save percentage (.942), goals-against average (1.62) and shutouts (seven). Early this season, Andersen played valiantly in the thankless role of opposing local icon Henrik Lundqvist
when the New York Rangers
came to Gothenburg for an exhibition game during the NHL's Premiere Challenge. Later, he bounced back from an injury (at a time when club was trying to deal with the absences of critical players such as Joel Lundqvist
and Magnus Kahnberg
) to backstop the team's upward charge in the standings.
Hellberg, who like many modern young netminders strikes an imposing figure at 6-foot-5, starred at the Swedish junior and minor-league levels before moving to Elitserien. He's started 16 games this season, posting a 2.63 GAA, .903 save percentage and a pair of shutouts this season.
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Hellberg's situation is somewhat similar to what Eriksson went through last season with Skelleftea, when he was unable to budge veteran Andreas Hadelov from the starting job. Although Eriksson often has been a backup goalie in his young career -- first to Jacob Markstrom
and Anders Lindback
with Brynas IF Gavle and then as a rookie with SAIK last season -- his potential has been well-known for years.
Drafted by the Philadelphia Flyers
in the seventh round (No. 196) of the 2008 Entry Draft, Eriksson left Brynas for the opportunity to start for minor-league team Leksands IF. An immediate star in Leksand, Eriksson was inconsistent in his 17 games as an Elitserien rookie last season while serving as Hadelov's backup.
As a result, Philadelphia elected not to sign Eriksson to an entry-level contract and instead signed late-blooming former Minnesota Wild
draftee Niko Hovinen
of the Lahti Pelicans in Finland's SM-liiga. Hovinen is two years older and is believed to be somewhat closer to being NHL-ready than his Swedish counterpart.
Eriksson, who will turn 22 in April, is free to sign with any NHL team. He recently inked a contract extension with SAIK, but the deal has an NHL out-clause if he were to sign with an NHL club and elect to attend its training camp. Although it remains an open question as to his short-term NHL readiness, he has taken the next step forward in his development with SAIK this season with the help of Skelleftea goaltending coach Krister Holm.
Over the course of the season, Eriksson has taken more and more playing time away from the 36-year-old Hadelov. The tandem went from splitting time evenly to Eriksson getting the bulk of the playing time.
Through last weekend, Eriksson had appeared in 30 games this season to 21 by Hadelov. Eriksson also has performed significantly better (1.80 GAA, .934 save percentage, three shutouts) than his veteran counterpart (2.66 GAA, .891 save percentage, one shutout).
On Tuesday, Eriksson made 26 saves in SAIK's 4-3 victory against HV 71 Jonkoping, which moved SAIK into sole possession of second place with three regular-season games remaining.
However, no team is going to catch Lulea for first place, as the Bears enjoy a five-point lead on SAIK. Although the team ranks near the bottom of the league in terms of goals scored (an average 2.25 per game through its first 51 games), Lulea gives up so few that it rarely matters.
Gustafsson, who celebrated his 20th birthday Tuesday with a night off as Lulea beat Timra IK 7-2, has split playing time evenly this season with 26-year-old David Rautio. Both goaltenders have performed equally well behind their teammates' often-airtight defense.
Gustafsson has posted a 1.84 GAA, .927 save percentage and five shutouts in 27 games, while Rautio has posted similarly gaudy numbers (1.78 GAA, .925 save percentage, four shutouts) in 26 games. Gustafsson also won captured a gold medal with Sweden at the 2012 World Junior Championship.
Drafted by the Minnesota Wild
in the sixth round (No. 159) of the 2010 Entry Draft, Gustafsson is an Elitserien rookie this season. He appeared in three Elitserien games as a member of Farjestads BK Karlstad in 2009-10 and then started 26 games for minor-league Vasteras IK last season before joining Lulea. An agile 6-foot-2, Gustafsson is one of the better young puckhandling goalies in European hockey.