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The Last Champions of Europe?

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I spent this last weekend in the small Finnish village of Espoonlahti just a bit outside Helsinki. This is where Finnish champion Espoo Blues would host the final group stage of the European Women Champions Cup and as you would expect from a women’s hockey tournament in Europe it’s usually held in one of these small rinks out in some remote location. So why isn’t there more people watching women’s hockey? Well might be a good idea to get some posters up and let them play at a more central arena where people don’t have to go out of their way to get there on a Saturday …

Beside the Blues the final quartet consisted of Linkopings HC from Sweden, SKIF Nizhy Novgorod from Russia and HC Lugano from Switzerland. I would have bet everything I had on LHC to win it, but kind of glad now that I couldn’t.

First out was the game between LHC and Lugano, I had expected it to be the easiest game for LHC but not of the magnitude they actually crushed Lugano 9 to nothing! The game was very similar to the Bolzano game in the last round in Linkˆping, kind of like Lugano was caught with their pants down and didn’t expect LHC to be that good. Anyway, a great start for LHC and at the same time a splash of water that woke Lugano up for a nice bounce-back on Saturday.

The late Friday game was a tight battle between SKIF and Espoo, and it was the hosts that kicked it off best by pushing the Russians hard in their own zone and also managed to break the tie as Emma Nuutinen forced the puck in at the end of the first period. SKIF returned as a reborn team in the second period and gained some offensive rush after an early goal after the break and the game stood tied efter two periods. A bad beat for Espoo late second period as Sosina and Tuominen collided mid ice resulting in a concussion for the Finnish captain, so hard to watch a prominent player get injured at the start of such a important tournament. Still I was impressed by how well Espoo held up against the Russian champs, missing some key players they managed to hold out until Karolina Rantamaki finally delievered a real cannon through the pads of Portnoj giving SKIF the win with 8 minutes remaining. Espoo was never really close to tying the game up again and Sosina could set the score at 3-1 with only seconds left. No real shock that LHC and SKIF would be the victors this first day.

Next up at Saturday noon was Espoo versus Lugano and this was not the same Lugano from the day before. They came out with a lot of heart and grit, sure Espoo was up 1-0 after only 41 seconds but then momentum changed. You could tell Espoo was the better team, however Lugano played smart defense and with a lot of finess in their offense moving the puck well within the team and after one period the score was 2-1 Blues. The second period was a thrill to watch as the tides on the ice were turning, Espoo got up with a early goal for a 3-1 lead after which Lugano just exploded and two goals later both by Anja Stiefel you could not even guess how this would end. After two periods the teams were tied at 4 a piece. Espoo once again got the lead as Michelle Karvinen rocketed away on a breakaway shorthanded and the situation now looked grim for the Swiss, but alas once more they recovered to tie the game up getting Nicole Gifford her second of the day and pushed the Blues to a overtime decider. Unfortunately the same Gifford got to see the game end in the penalty box halfway through the overtime period as Vilma Tanskanen completed her hat-trick. Really exciting game and all credit to Lugano for their great comeback after the first game.

So the stage was set for the early final game between SKIF and LHC, the giants of Europe and whomever would win this game in regulation would also be the new European champions. What we got to see was one truly outstanding team, a tough physical and psychological game, some lucky bounces and this one simply amazing goaltender. Linkˆping came out with all cylinders pumping and I would say this was perhaps the finest game they’ve played all season, moving the puck along well, skating hard and playing solid defense not giving SKIF an inch of ice to work with and the pucks were dancing on the goal line just outside SKIF’s net. The goals however would be sparse, close when one of the Russian players covered the puck in their own crease and LHC were awarded with a penalty shot taken by Winberg just to be saved by R‰is‰nen. It would take a bit over half the game before the first goal fell and it was a well deserved lead by LHC as Ingrid Morset found an opening. Felt like a really cold shower as SKIF tied the game up just minutes later by Rantamaki, but still no doubt that LHC would win this as they continued to put tremendous pressure in the Russian’s defensive zone.

I just couldn’t grasp how many pucks LHC could get past Raisanen without managing to put in that final touch for another goal and it was like getting shot through the heart with an arrow when SKIF took the lead on a puck that deflected twice beating Kim Martin-Hasson who couldn’t see a thing. The whole world was so unfair and I could just keep hoping for all the hard work to pay off, but despite LHC pulling Kim out of the goal and charging with six skaters, Meeri Raisanen in the SKIF net was just impossible today and it was she who sunk LHC as they dominated the shots 41-19 and the whole game, everything except for the goals. I was soo sad after the game, most of all for our girls playing a super game and still losing. But can’t do anything but congratulate SKIF on a solid season eclipsing as EWCC-champs in from what I could understand the last tournament of this format as it sounds like the IIHF thinks it costs too much. Terrible really since this is the only chance many of the players all over Europe get to play against international competition and in many of the smaller leagues across Europe this has been the only real goal to prepare for since their own leagues are so weak. I hope that there will be a change of heart in this matter or that someone with the resources can start up something similar, otherwise we’ll have to get some invitational tournaments going where the superpowers can measure up against eachother on a club level.

The last two games on Sunday ended as follows, SKIF-Lugano 7-4 and LHC-Espoo 5-2. 

These are my picks for the tournament all-star team:

G: Meeri Raisanen, SKIF (The Finnish national team goalie had a couple of world class games against LHC and Espoo, she’s just Meericulous!)

D: Emilia Andersson, LHC (Key player from Team Sweden, she plays with so much poise on the ice and almost can’t make a bad play.)

D: Emma Holmbom, LHC (Stellar offensive playmaker this weekend, killer police when you mess with her teammates.)

F: Anja Stiefel, Lugano (Lightning fast righty with a fabolous hockey sense, carried her team throughout the weekend.)

F: Olga Sosina, SKIF (Smart and tough player, not to mention productive. A true Olympic star.)

F: Denise Altmann, LHC (The best player in the world who has not played at the highest World Championship level, just magical.)

It’s hard to pick out a tournament team out of so many terrific players, just think of all the Olympic players on these teams. Winberg, Karvinen, Jalosuo, Marty and the list goes on.

I would like to give a big shout out for Linkopings future stars of today Vendela Jonsson and Jessica Adolfsson as both played a great tournament, to see these young players step up against these Olympians is amazing. The future of Team Sweden is looking so bright it almost hurts your eyes.

The weekend in Espoonlahti was a real feast of wonderful people who made the whole experience even better, mostly family of the players but I also got to see former and present Olympians like Anna Vanhatalo and Noora Raaty on the stands, I must say that’s pretty cool!

Coming up in Sweden right now is the qualification series for the next years Elite league expansion where eight teams are competing for four spots making up a league of 10. It began this last weekend and will be on for another month, I’ll get back about that when it’s all over. Also the playoffs are starting this week and LHC starts their gold run in the semifinals next week, and some teams will feel the fury of the team that lost a European gold!

Last but not least, the World Championship season has started as the qualification tournament for next years Division 2B was held in Hong Kong. I was sad to see Turkey get demoted last year, but I very much enjoyed seeing them win the qualification and they will be back in the system again next season. Believe me, Turkey is on the rise!

Thanks for reading, keep up the good work supporting your local and national women’s hockey all across the world! Together we are making it grow!

Mats

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