COLOGNE, Germany – It’s been a battle few had expected when the DEL playoffs began on March 9th, and it ended in a manner few would have predicted, namely with the new DEL Champion being ERC Ingolstadt. Before the season started, hardly a pundit would have predicted that the Panthers would end this season as the champion. Before the playoffs started, even fewer considered them to be a contender of any sort, especially after the team had only won seven of its last 22 games.
To even get to the quarter-finals, the Panthers first had to take on the reigning champion Eisbaren Berlin in the so-called pre-playoffs just to be counted as one of the quarter-finalists. Winning the best-of-three series 2-1, the team then had to face the second place Krefeld Pinguine, who they surprisingly had little problem dismissing, deciding the series 4-1.
This led to a playoff match-up against the league’s top ranked club, the Hamburg Freezers, who were coming off their best regulation season ever and a 4-2 series victory against the upstart Iserlohn Roosters. It proved a difficult series for both teams, but Ingolstadt’s incredible home team strength, having not lost a home game in the playoffs, paid off in spades against a Freezers team that hadn’t won there in years. The series ended 4-2 in Ingolstadt’s favour. With that, the finals featured a surprise candidate that had finished 9th in the regular season with a 21-22-3-6 record.
The path of Kolner Haie from Cologne to the finals was a convincing one. Having finished 5th overall in the regular season with a 23-16-7-6 record, the Sharks faced off against a star-laden Adler Mannheim team and had little trouble deciding the series 4-1, allowing Mannheim to only score a total of six goals whatsoever. They then dominantly held the Grizzly Adams Wolfsburg to only five goals scored all series long in dismissing them in a similar 4-1 fashion in the semi-finals. This dominance however came to an end as of the third game of the DEL finals. At that point, Ingolstadt was able to decide four of the next five games in order to become champion.
The series had a number of storylines heading in, none more intriguing than that of Cologne coach Uwe Krupp facing former assistant coach Niklas Sundblad. Krupp had brought Sundblad into the fray in 2011 and the two worked together until 2013, when Sundblad took over in Ingolstadt. There was also DEL Goalie of the Year Danny aus den Birken facing off against DEL Rookie of the Year Timo Pielmeier, whose play continued to improve throughout the season. With that, the finals featured two German number-one goalies both under the age of 30.
The momentum had taken its course in Cologne’s favour the first two games before swaying entirely for Ingolstadt, which put up three victories in a row, and then went back again in a game six that only needed four minutes of overtime play before 20-year Cologne veteran Mirko Ludemann decided it 1-0. This led to an incredible game seven final that featured as much excitement and intrigue as an ice hockey lover’s heart can handle before a sell-out crowd of 18,666.
That the two teams had learned to hate each other, something that has long characterized the face of playoff hockey, was clearly evident on this April 29th evening in Cologne. Hooking, hacking, pushing, punching – it was all present in full force through the course of the 60 minutes of play. And as was the case in the previous game, it was clear that a goal was going to be tough to come by.
That all changed when Christoph Gawlik shoved a puck into Cologne’s goal seemingly out of nowhere from the slot in the 17th minute of the second period. It was the first goal the Panthers had scored in 96 minutes of finals play. But it wouldn’t be the last.
No sooner had the third period begun, then John Laliberte skated past the opposing defence, cut across the goalmouth, and slid one by aus den Birken from a sheer impossible angle at the far corner of the net, giving Ingolstadt the 2-0 lead with roughly 19:30 to go in the third.
Kolner Haie then pushed as much as possible to get back in the game, but just couldn’t find a way to create promising scoring opportunities. When they did get shots to the goal, they were eaten up by Pielmeier. There was little help coming from the refs either as not a penalty was called in the third period despite several vicious slashes along the way.
Cologne coach Krupp decided to pull aus den Birken with 2:15 left to go in the third period and the team proceeded to do everything it could to create a goal, but their strength was clearly fading. The pressure created simply wasn’t enough. Ingolstadt blocked and battled their way through the remaining moments of the game until the siren rung and the team raced onto the ice in celebration. A plethora of sticks and gloves were thrown in the air as the players made their way to each other in a huddle of sure elation. Their Cinderella story had come to the best possible conclusion.
It was the first time in the history of the small-town ERC Ingolstadt that they had won the DEL championship, having first joined the DEL for the 2002/2003 season. It was the sixth time in the history of the DEL that Kolner Haie had lost in the DEL finals, this being the second year in a row.
The MVP of the series was Ingolstadt defenceman Patrick Koppchen, who just concluded his first season for the team after two seasons with the Hamburg Freezers. He blocked more shots than any other player in the series and his two goals and six points were the most any defenceman has ever collected in a final series in 20 years of DEL history. He also put up 14 points in 20 playoff games after only having put up 12 points in 52 regular season games.
Timo Pielmeier was named “man of the day” as he pitched his first shutout of the series. Looking back at how the team was mired in a slump in February, he touched on how the group went partying together at that juncture, ready to try anything to turn the ship. “That’s just how teams grow together,” he told ServusTV.
The man with the game-winning goal, Christoph Gawlik, who only scored three goals all season after having been a 20 goal scorer as soon as the 2009/2010 season, was clearly ecstatic: "I can’t even speak anymore, because I’m so happy. I couldn’t sleep a lick this morning. I had a terrible season. And now I of all people score the big goal today."
With that, the 20th season of DEL hockey has now concluded. It featured its 9th different victor – one that finished the regular season ranked 9th overall. For Ingolstadt, it’s been a playoff run for the ages. You can rest assured that the small Bavarian city of roughly 130’000 inhabitants will celebrate as it seldom has before.