For the Vienna Capitals, the pressure for something special had been building over the course of several weeks, if not months, and now something very seldom in the world of ice hockey has become their reality.
Not only are the Vienna Capitals the new champion of the EBEL by defeating Klagenfurt 4-0 in the finals, they have achieved this by going undefeated throughout the entire playoffs.
This is the team’s first national title since the 2004/05 season.
“It’s been a simply crazy season in which we improved from game to game, having been at the top of the standings right from the beginning,” said an elatedly exhausted Raffi Rotter, a 10-year veteran of the club, who netted his second goal and 16th point of the playoffs before the five minute mark of the first period. “Winning here with this crowd is just crazy. Of course, it’s not comparable to the crowd in Vienna, but it’s a crazy feeling being on the road and having so many of our fans experience this moment with us. This is just an incredible thing right now.”
The two finalists kicked off the fourth and final game by exchanging leads in establishing a 2-2 draw within the first 19:09 of the contest. A second-period goal on a precise wrist shot by defenceman Ryan MacKiernan, his second tally of the playoffs, was then followed by a suffocating defensive display and several friendly posts over the last 34 minutes of the game, sealing off Vienna’s historic run with a 3-2 road victory.
MacKiernan’s lethal shot could only be topped by his post-game statement when asked how the team would be spending the night after this victory: “I think we’re going to head back home to get a good night’s sleep. Ah, no way, it’s going to be nuts! Thank you.”
But he sure wasn’t the only hero in putting the nail in the coffin. One of the interesting side stories was the play of back-up goalie David Kickert, an unassuming 23-year-old who has been with the organization since the 2009/10 season. Averaging 17 appearances a season over the past three years, he was called to action twice during the playoffs, including tonight’s series-clinching thriller, and only went about recording an astounding 95.2 save percentage and 0.96 goals against average in those two games.
This only seemed fitting for an organization that continually got contributions across the board and a young man who is felt to truly be on the rise in Austrian ice hockey, affirmed by his having been named the YoungStar before the playoffs. This award serves to honour the young talent in the league who took the greatest step in development.
The fashion in which the Capitals garnered this championship, winning every single one of their 12 playoff games, hasn’t been seen in quite some time, topping the already impressive 12 wins in 13 games achieved by Red Bull Salzburg in the 2014/15 season.
The victory also breaks the streak of two straight championships by the Red Bull Salzburg. This streak was actually already discontinued by Klagenfurt, whose march to the finals came somewhat unexpectedly on the heels of a 4-2 semi-final series victory over Salzburg, a team that had gathered 23 more points than Klagenfurt in the course of the regular season and qualification round. The veteran-laden KAC, as they are affectionately known, turned up its game when it mattered most and hoped to magically win their 6th championship in this century. The fairy tale ending would nonetheless belong to Vienna this season.
Klagenfurt’s path to the final included 4-0 series victory over Znojmo and then the rough and tumble 4-2 win over Salzburg while Vienna marched over Innsbruck and the Italian Bolzano Foxes undefeated in making the final. Despite a 4-0 series domination, the series was tighter than you’d initially expect. The games themselves ended with scores of 4-1, 5-4 (OT), 7-5, and now 3-2. The 7-5 victory included an empty netter, going to show that Klagenfurt kept itself in every game and never went down without a fight.
For both head coach Serge Aubin and assistant coach Craig Streu this season has been quite a wild ride. This time last year, both were wrapping up their seasons in Germany; Aubin with the DEL’s now defunct Hamburg Freezers, Streu with the Neuwied Bears, formerly of the Oberliga. Both hit the offseason already focused on a huge 2016/17 season with their respective clubs, however, still fully in the employ of their respective teams. Both ended up facing a shocking scenario in which their teams completely exited their respective leagues. As widely reported, there is no more Hamburg Freezers. The Neuwied Bears simply pulled out of the Oberliga in what became a shockingly controversial story and are now rebuilding their team in one of Germany’s western regional leagues.
In short, neither could have fathomed at this point last spring that they’d be coaching in Austria, much less winning the EBEL championship.
“It ended up being a wonderful season right from day one,” stated an elated Serge Aubin. “We went about establishing a new identity and putting together these 12 wins in a row is just unbelievable. We were a family where everyone pulled the line and anything was possible.”
“I was part of a fantastic group of people this year. We all worked hard together and it ended up all being worth it."
For assistant coach Craig Streu, whose son is currently suiting up for Germany’s U18 entry at the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A in Bled, Slovenia, the experience has been nothing short of a fantastic journey. “I’m just feeling so good right now. I‘ve had to ask Serge if this really happening," recalls Streu.
“We are both so happy and proud of this season. For both of us it's our first championship as coaches and will always have a special place in our hearts. This group we had was one of a kind and even early in this season, we had a great feeling that we had the right pieces to go all the way.”
A Saskatchewan-native, who is also a former member of the German national team himself, Streu put the events of the past year, and Vienna’s accomplishments, into perspective. “The fact that both our teams dropped out for financial reasons in Germany and Serge and I ended up in Austria together to win a championship is truly amazing. But the situation is also something as a coach you can react to. It is just like being able to change your tactics during a game; you are always prepared for something and in this business we all know anything can happen."
“We were able to come together, establish our hockey culture and core values here in Vienna and the group really bought in. If you have a group that believes and you can get some momentum, anything is possible. Everything worked for us and the work everyone put it was rewarded."
Of course, this championship story couldn’t have been written without the vast contributions of forward Riley Holzapfel. After three rather mild seasons in the SHL, he pulled a ‘veni, vidi, vici’ of his own this season in Austria. Already named the league’s MVP before the finals, he was also named the Playoff MVP on the strength of 12 goals and 23 points in the 12-game journey. But that naturally was only the icing on the cake.
“I was asked about that in the middle of the series. It simply wouldn’t have been a complete or perfect season unless we got this championship. The MVP honour just tops everything off,” explained an elated Holzapfel. “It’s been a special ride all season and I’m just so happy we finished it off the right way.”
The former second round pick of the now defunct Atlanta Thrashers concluded the year with 34 goals, 42 assists, 76 points, and a +25 in 65 total games.
For the Vienna Capitals organization, there’ll be a good bit of celebrating and surely a variety of recognition events coming from various establishments around Vienna and Austria. Many players will go on vacation while a few others may report to the national team.
But all will head into the offseason knowing they made history this spring. As Streu sums up, “This is great group of guys who smashed League records all season and never lost focus on the big prize... and we earned it!”
They sure did. And with that undefeated path to the championship, they did so like few have before them.