Not just the same old in Finland

Hockey is the fastest sport, on and off the ice. Ask TPS. Or KalPa.

26.10.2008
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Kärpät Oulu is currently struggling, being third from bottom in the Finnish SM-liiga. Photo: Getty Images/Bongarts

HELSINKI – It’s early, very, very early in the season, but still, after about a fourth of the Finnish SM-liiga season behind us, there seem to be some signs of turning tides.

Some teams would probably want to freeze the current standings, others rewind the season and start over. Some of the trends are just peaking this season, after several years, and other seem to have come out of almost nowhere.

If you can call TPS Turku landing on the bottom of the standings a trend that’s “peaking.”

Right now, the standings look like on the left. And just five seasons ago, the final standings in the SM-liiga looked like the right one.

<table><tbody><tr><td align="right">1.
2.
3.
4.
5.
6.
7.
8.
9.
10.
11.
12.
13.
14.</td><td>JYP
Espoo
Jokerit
Lukko
KalPa
HPK
Tappara
SaiPa
Lahti
Ilves
HIFK
Kärpät
Ässät
TPS </td><td width="20">  </td><td align="right">1.
2.
3.
4.
5.
6.
7.
8.
9.
10.
11.
12.
13.</td><td>TPS
Kärpät
HIFK
HPK
Lukko
Ilves
Jokerit
Tappara
Espoo
JYP
Ässät
SaiPa
Lahti</td></tr></tbody></table>
It hasn’t turned completely upside down, but almost, and of course, the teams haven’t played an equal number of games, ranging from 14 (Kärpät, HIFK, HPK, Jokerit) to 17 (JYP, Tappara, TPS).

That said, TPS sitting pretty on the bottom of the standings is a first. The first SM-liiga champion is second in the Finnish all-time standings, with 61 seasons in the highest division. Its last Finnish title is from 2001, and as late as 2004, TPS played in the Finnish final.

Since then, the club has struggled with financial problems, getting several injections of cash from new investors, such as Calgary Flames goalie Miikka Kiprusoff, but finishing sixth, tenth, ninth, and tenth, nonetheless.

Last year, TPS Turku averaged 5,979 spectators a game, and this season, the downward spiral seems to have gotten worse. First eight home games have drawn 4,600 fans on average.

Kärpät, obviously, is surprisingly low in the standings as well, and even if you just look at points per game, and forget the number of games played, the team ranks eighth in the league with 1.36 points per game. In that regard, too, JYP Jyväskylä leads the league with 2.24 points per game, with Jokerit closest behind with 2.07.

HPK Hämeenlinna is finding its groove now that the arena renovation is complete, and the team can play on home ice as well. HPK began the season with 11 consecutive away games, and has played just two of their 14 games at home.

Ilves is on a five-game losing streak after their Thursday loss to KalPa Kuopio – who snapped a five-game losing streak of their own with the win. KalPa, the whipping boy of many for the past three years since it returned to the SM-liiga, has taken a big step forward this season.

This far, this is all just good, clean fun for the fans. While JYP has a 15-point lead over sixth-place Tappara Tampere, TPS is only seven points behind them.

Besides, there are still three quarters of the season left to play. This season, the teams that are left outside the ten-team playoffs, will play their own play-outs, with the loser meeting the winner of Mestis, the second-tier league, for a place in the top league.

For one SM-liiga team. that’s the last chance to turn things around.

Notebook:
  • Dinamo Riga will play two of its KHL games in Espoo next week, against Ak Bars Kazan on Sunday, and Lada Togliatti on Monday.
  • Veteran forward Kalle Sahlstedt, KalPa, claimed the top spot in the scoring race this week. He’s collected 10+7=17 points in 16 games.
  • HIFK Helsinki signed American Shawn Bates, 33, for a try-out contract that covers the next month. “He’s suffered of injuries, so we just want to make sure he’s in shape,” says Tom Nybodas, HIFK’s director of hockey operations.
  • JYP coach Risto Dufva has found his go-to guys, and they’re called Ville Mäntymaa and Kalle Kaijomaa. Mäntymaa leads the league in ice time per game, averaging 26.28 minutes. His defensive partner, Kaijomaa, has 24.28 minutes per game.
  • TPS Turku fired head coach Hannu Virta and assistant coach Kalle Kaskinen on Sunday. The new coach, Kai Suikkanen, was announced on Monday. Suikkanen terminated recently his contract with Hokki Kajaani in Mestis, Finland's second-tier league.

RISTO PAKARINEN

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