The Swedish championships concluded last week when this years dominant Linkoping defeated AIK in two straight final games, a finish of champions as they defended last years gold owning the last game 5-0 in front of a 3,000 people strong home crowd. I will tell you it was an extraordinary day, the win last year was big but the way they have truly stood out this whole season has been just amazing to watch. Sweden has a new era of excellence to live up to from now on and what Linkoping has accomplished really sets a new standard for the future of building teams in Europe’s best league.
But enough about the Swedish playoffs, there was a lot of great games however not nearly as exciting as the playoffs in Norway where my heart truly lies. I’ve never felt especially patriotic about Sweden, probably as I have never identified with the Swedish stereotype and that may be why I have such an easy time embracing and appreciating other nations national teams and their unique playing styles. I love the pure hearted Canadians, the dauntless Danes, the fast Finnish skaters and of course the free spirited Norwegians. Naturally my love for Norway took me on a trip over to oil city Stavanger this weekend for the national championships.
Just to give you the basics about the Norwegian playoffs. There are 4 teams playing in the highest league in Norway and 7 teams in the first division. The two best teams in the top league gets a free pass to the semifinals and the other two teams play the two highest ranked first division teams in the quarter finals. It’s still a wide gap between the elite league and the first division in Norway but Narvik is building a team aspired to get there and they were also played the closest of the two quarter finals. Reigning champions Jordal began by routing Bergen 11-0 in the first game, the second one between Sparta and Narvik was close halfway through Sparta only up 1-0 but as the time kept ticking Narvik just didn’t have the endurance for it and Sparta stood victorious 6-1 at the end of the game.
The beaten first division teams rejoined their regular season opponents for a winner take all cup where Narvik later emerged as champions with an impressive 10-1 goal difference over 4 games.
The quest for the King’s cup continued with the semifinals, first off Stavanger faced Sparta. The league winners Stavanger had not lost to Sparta this season and it was supposed to be a easy road to the final, however Sparta had something else in mind. Last year they upset VÂlerenga who won the league in the semifinals and I bet you Stavanger was getting nervous when the board said 1-1 at the end of regulation, a kombination of great goaltending by Spartan Mathilde Nilsen and a breakaway goal by Emilie Kruse. 10 minutes of overtime with nothing but Stavanger offense ended with the game still tied and game-winning shots would decide this. 3 missed shots each and the fourth time would be the charm, and it was Stavanger who would draw the longest straw as Ingrid Renli managed to get the puck in the net, at last the first finalist were ready.
The second game was a meet between Olso rivals VÂlerenga and Jordal, not really a question about who would win this as VÂlerenga was better from the start all the way until the horn sounded at the end of the game with 3-1 on the board. Sure it was a bit nervous as Jordal made it 2-1 at the end of the second period but VÂlerenga never really let them come any closer and finished the game strong.
This set up for a smashing final between the two giants of the regular season, only one point apart in the standings and with a 2 win, 2 loss, 2 tie record between the teams. VÂlerenga got off to a brilliant start only 1:40 into the game as the rest of the team was changing, defender Linn Aakre goes up for an offensive run by herself and blasts one from just inside the blueline for a 1-0 lead. Pretty even played game but with a bit more determination from VÂlerenga, playing with lots of grit winning pucks all over the ice. Midway through the game Stavanger gets a chance to even it out after VÂlerenga lines up some penalties and after failing to score on a couple Stavanger finally capitalizes on a third as Line Berntsen snipes one in the far top corner tying the game up at one. Momentum shiftet for a bit during the extended powerplays for Stavanger but once back to full strength VÂlerenga once again took command of the game and only minutes later the visitors from Oslo could recapture the lead after a nice little play from Martine Henriksen setting up Camilla Bakkene alone in front of the goal. VÂlerenga finishes the mid period on the powerplay and can once again get a nice play going ending with a goal by Tuva Nerland with only 20 seconds to go of the period. Stavanger had a tough road ahead trailing 1-3 after two periods of play.
However VÂlerenga was to show no mercy, stepping on it right from the start of the third period and scoring only a few minutes in as Martine Henriksen could place 4-1 on the board with a nifty shot right outside the crease. Things were looking pretty good now but Stavanger was not done with this one and less than a minute after the extended lead it was a two goal game again as Ingrid Renli was let into the attacking zone free to roam all the way to the net not having any problem putting one up for the home team. Although once again came a quick reply from VÂlerenga, kind of similar to Henriksen’s goal it was once again Bakkene as the scorer with her second of the game and VÂlerenga was now up 5-2 with only about 10 minutes to play. Just at the halfway mark Stavanger made a game of it as Jeanett Hjelm rounded VÂlerenga’s captain breaking in in front of their goal and putting up a beautiful backhand in the far corner. A 5-3 lead for VÂlerenga, still they had the game under control and started focusing on holding a tight defensive zone which really paid out. Stavanger never got close to the net again and VÂlerenga could once again claim the King’s cup as their own without being upset in the semifinals like last year or being upstaged by a team with borrowed Swedish legends! Well deserved win in a game were they did wan’t it the most and fought hard to get the win, I only hope they get the chance to represent in the European Women Champions Cup next year, they are eligable at least.
For sure I got nothing but love for these girls, VÂlerenga is a team of all kinds of players. Ever since the World Championships in Ventspils, Latvia, Martine Henriksen has been one of my absolute favorite players, just an outstanding force on the ice, skating hard and playing smart, everything you could ask for from a player on your team. We’ve got the strong and calm captain Rikke Tautra on defense creating a nice core with offensively brilliant Marlene Gonther and Linn Aakre on one side and defensive genius Maja Thomassen on the other side, a defense with a variety of skills. And what a lovely offense with young Norwegians who are setting the standards of the national team of tomorrow, Josefine Engmann highly skilled and a tough power forward to face and Henriette Behn the fastest and hardest grinder you will meet in Norway. You might miss Camilla Bakkene for a while but then she turns up from nowhere in excellent scoring position, a real Jack-in-the-Box for the opponents. Of course I have to lift up Norway’s number one goalie Toini Nilsen backstopping VÂlerenga, she had a great tournament last year in Prerov and will once again dress up for Norway as they set out for the tournament in France in a couple of weeks. Norway has a great future ahead and it’s just a matter of time before you all get to enjoy these players as they move up to the highest World Championship level.
Last but certainly not least I would like to give a big hand for Julie Oiseth, one of the very best players still playing in Norway right now. She had a tough weekend playing with Sparta and really carried the team on her shoulders, one of the most complete players I’ve ever seen, she’s got strength, speed and endurance like you wouldn’t believe and didn’t deserve some of the bad beats she got from the refs during the last games with both badly called penalties and some awful icing calls as some just don’t grasp the hybrid icing rules. Real glad I get to see her represent for the national team in France, with the quality of play and players she deserves!
Once more a big thanks to Norway for always extending a warm welcome and truly all the love in the world for "hockeyjentene" as they always do their thing in style!
Come Saturday it’s off to Malmˆ for the first day of the World Championships and then I move on Sunday to the World Championship Division 2A in Dumfries, Scotland for a week. There is still much hockey to be played this season even if it’s all in the next 3 weeks.
Over and out,