Entering the inaugural season of Europe's Champions Hockey League, few pundits paid much attention to the defending Swiss Nationalliga A champions, ZSC Lions Zurich.
The six-time Swiss titlist came on in the postseason last year after an inconsistent regular season that saw it finish in sixth place. That combined with some roster upheaval, including new coach Sean Simpson
behind the bench, suggested the Lions would not be among the favorites to compete for the championship.
Now, however, the team from Zurich sits one game from a spot in the finals against either defending Russian champion Salavat Yulaev Ufa or fellow Russian squad Metallurg Magnitogorsk. The Lions have gone undefeated in regulation and downed previously undefeated Finnish squad Espoo Blues in the first leg of the two-game semifinal.
In group play, ZSC played in a division against Czech squad HC Slavia Prague and Swedish team Linkopings HC. In their opener, ZSC traveled to Sweden and mauled LHC (which also has a lion crest) by a 7-2 count. After dropping a 5-4 shootout decision to Slavia on home ice, Zurich beat Linkoping 4-3 and then rode a four-goal third period outburst to beat Slavia, 5-1.
In the semifinal opener, the Lions played in front of a sell-out crowd (6,100) at Diners Club Arena in Rapperswil-Jona (Hallenstadion, ZSC's 13,000-capacity home arena in Zurich, was unavailable). The crowd left happy after the home side prevailed, 6-3. ZSC seems well poised to advance to the final, unless they were to get blown out Jan. 7 when the second game of the semis is played at Espoo's LänsiAuto Areena.
ZSC has been surprisingly potent offensively in Champions League play.
Last season, strong team defense and good goaltending from Finnish veteran Ari Sulander carried the club to the Swiss title as the team was fifth in the Swiss league in goals scored. But a glance at this season's Champions Hockey League leaderboard reveals that four of the top five scorers are ZSC players.
The club's top scorer last year, former Florida Panthers
prospect Adrian Wichser
, ranked No. 12 overall and first among Swiss players in the Nationalliga in 2007-08 with 10 goals and 50 points in 46 games. This year, the veteran forward leads the Champions League scoring race with 10 points in five games.
In the first semifinal game against Espoo, Wichser jammed his wrist and later had to go off for stitches to close a facial cut, but still returned to the game. All of Wichser's CHL points have come by way of assist. In Nationalliga play, he's third on the Lions with 31 points, 26 of which are assists.
Former St. Louis Blues
left wing Peter Sejna
is second in the CHL with 8 points, including 4 goals. The 29-year-old Slovak import is in his second season with the Lions. Last year, he tallied 16 goals and 37 points in 38 Swiss League games. To date this season, he has 11 goals and 33 points in Nationalliga play.
One-time Phoenix Coyotes
and Minnesota Wild
winger Jean-Guy Trudel
(a new member of the Lions who was not part of last season's championship) and 39-year-old fellow French Canadian Jan Alston both have 7 points in CHL play. Now in his eighth season with Zurich, Alston has played in Europe for 17 seasons.
Meanwhile, Canadian-born Ryan Gardner has 5 goals in 5 CHL games for the Lions. The 30-year-old center, who scored 17 goals and 31 points last season in his first campaign with ZSC, has already surpassed those totals in Nationalliga play this year. He leads the Lions with 18 goals and 37 points.
The ageless Sulander, a former Finnish national team goaltender and a longtime favorite among Jokerit Helsinki fans, has now been with ZSC for 11 seasons. Despite getting ready to celebrate his 40th birthday on Jan. 6, Sulander remains capable of stealing games for his team.
ZSC recently sustained a major loss when its top defenseman, Beat Forster
, abruptly terminated his contract with the team. The 25-year-old former Phoenix Coyotes
draftee announced his intention to join rival Swiss club HC Davos. A regular on the Swiss national team, the loss of Forster will have an impact on the club, both in the domestic league and the Champions League playoffs. He had 3 points in three CHL games.
Nevertheless, ZSC looked strong in downing Espoo in the front end of the semifinal. A pair of goals from Alston (including an empty-netter) and single goals from Gardner, Sejna, Monnet Thibaut (power play) and Cyrill Buhler provided more than enough support for Sulander.
Whether ZSC advances to the finals or Espoo storms back to earn a berth in the championship round, the winner is going to face a tall task in the final.
Both Salavat and Metallurg are a cut above the rest of the field in the tourney, and Russian clubs utterly dominated the CHL's predecessor leagues. Nevertheless, ZSC has ably demonstrated why followers of the Swiss League often argue that the top teams in the Swiss circuit are every bit as good as those in Euro leagues that get wider respect among North American fans.