And then there were only two. With the semi-finals over, Finnish champion Karpat Oulu and, again, Frolunda Gothenburg from Sweden reached the final of the Champions Hockey League.
The CHL Final will be played on 9 February in Oulu. The team from northern Finland had the best record of the originally 48 teams in the competition and earned home-ice advantage for the one-game final for the top European club competition.
Last year another team north of the Baltic Sea, Lulea HF, won the final against Frolunda, which will get a chance at redemption after dispatching HC Davos in the semis.
Both Karpat and Frolunda started the home-and-away semi-finals with a road win and advanced to the final with a tie on home ice on Tuesday.
Karpat Oulu (FIN) vs. Lukko Rauma (FIN) 2-2 (aggregate score 5-4)
After beating Lukko Rauma 3-2 in the first game, Finnish champion and current Liiga leader Karpat Oulu just had to defend its lead. This was easier said than done in a game that remained close until the very end.
Karpat opened the scoring on a power-play goal thanks to a Mika Pyorala slap shot at 6:18 of the second period assisted by 2016 IIHF World Junior champion Sebastian Aho. However, Lukko reacted five minutes later on a man advantage with a wrist shot from Toni Koivisto to tie the game.
In the third period Markus Nutivaara gave Karpat the early lead again assisted by another World Junior champion, tournament MVP Jesse Puljujarvi.
“Pulju played well. He deked the whole Lukko five apart,” Nutivaara told championshockeyleague.net about the set-up to his one-timer.
“I just had to wait and be ready to shoot. He passed the puck and I got the shot away. I saw room in the back corner. I think the puck had contact with Pyorala or a Lukko defenceman. It hit something anyway. Luckily it went in.”
However, veteran forward Janne Lahti scored the 2-2 goal for Lukko Rauma on another power play. The visiting team still had 5:37 left in regulation time to score the much-needed third goal and force overtime but Karpat defended the score to reach the final.
“I’m happy that we can play tough games such as this in the middle of the January. We played a solid game the whole 60 minutes. We prepared ourselves well. Yes we conceded two goals shorthanded, but especially in the end we were great,” said Karpat head coach Lauri Marjamaki, who is looking forward to playing the final on home ice.
“It has a huge significance. We play well here every time. I’m sure that people will attend the game and we need that. It’s a rare occasion to play for the European Championship in February here in Oulu. It’s great.”
Frolunda Gothenburg (SWE) vs. HC Davos (SUI) 1-1 (aggregate score 6-1)
After blanking HC Davos 5-0 on the Swiss champion’s ice last week, Frolunda Gothenburg was virtually in the final. A strong defensive game was all that was needed for the team from southern Sweden, currently leading the Swedish Hockey League standings.
Frolunda’s game plan was to keep the offensive-minded Swiss on distance and that worked out with 24-23 shots in favour of Davos.
“I think we played a very good tactical game,” Frolunda head coach Roger Ronnberg told championshockeyleague.net. “We shut down Davos, slowed them down and didn't give them a lot of space.”
Davos tried to score right away, motivated by 200 loud fans who joined the team to Gothenburg but at 3:29 Patrik Carlsson capitalized on a loose puck to give Frolunda the lead and extend the cushion to six goals on aggregate.
“It felt good today. Especially in the first period, where it felt like we broke their momentum a couple of times,” Carlsson said.
“In the second and third periods the game got a little torn apart by all the power plays and penalty killing, so it's more difficult to stick to your gameplan. But it felt good, indeed.”
Davos eventually scored its first goal on the two-game semi-finals at 1:29 of the second period with a goal from Andres Ambuhl on a power play. However, Davos didn’t gain momentum also because strong offensive action alternated with ill-disciplined play that cost the team too many penalties.
“At times players freaked out. That may not happen if you want to win a game without ifs and buts,” Davos head coach Arno Del Curto told hockeyfans.ch. However, he was satisfied with the whole international season for the club and coming that far despite injury trouble during the last few months.
“We played Skelleftea when they were leader in Sweden and now Frolunda. We had IFK Helsinki when they led the league and with Liberec the Czech leader. We beat all of them but Frolunda. But in Gothenburg with all these young players in our ranks our performance was just fantastic.”
The 1-1 tie remained until the end despite chances on both sides to give Frolunda the expected tickets to the final.
Two leaders in domestic play and development
After the Swiss club’s loss it will be Finland and Sweden in the final. These nations have so far delivered the best-performing clubs to the Champions Hockey League through two seasons.
Both Frolunda and Karpat currently lead their domestic leagues and are doing so with a lot of players who developed through their own systems. After a couple of mediocre seasons Karpat found back to old strength and won two back-to-back Finnish championships and regular-season titles while Frolunda has its best season for over a decade and aims at its first title since winning the Swedish league in 2005.
One of these teams will already celebrate in three weeks when the two clubs will play for the highest prize in international club competitions in Europe on 9 February in Oulu.