HELSINKI – Jokerit Helsinki’s first season in the KHL has been a success – Erkka Westerlund’s team acquitted itself well in the regular season, finishing fourth in the Western Conference and showing it could more than hold its own with the league’s big spenders and big hitters.
As the club’s inaugural play-off campaign gets underway against Dynamo Minsk, the Finnish capital is hoping for a long post-season – and possibly the chance to become the first non-Russian team to lift the Gagarin Cup.
That’s certainly the focus for Steve Moses. The American forward set a new KHL goal-scoring record in the regular season, with his tally of 36 putting him one better than the late Jan Marek (Metallurg Magnitogorsk, 2008-09) and Marcel Hossa (Dinamo Riga, 2009-10). He opened his play-off account in game two against Minsk, smashing a one-timer off a Linus Omark pass and is now setting his sights on bigger targets than personal milestones.
“Of course we believe we can go all the way,” he said in the locker room after the game. “If you don’t think like that you’ve already lost. The Gagarin Cup is our goal and I’m sure everyone in this room is confident we can do that.
“Scoring my first play-off goal wasn’t really a relief for me personally. Nobody cares about individual records, it’s all about winning games.”
Prior to the play-off series Moses spoke about how playing the KHL helped him to raise his game after two seasons with Jokerit in Finland’s Liiga, and he’s full of praise for the competition.
“It’s a great league and people here are getting to see some great hockey games,” he added. “With the quality of players here you know it’s going to be fun to watch.”
Fans in Helsinki have certainly responded to that opportunity. More than 325,000 people attended Jokerit’s 30 regular season games at the Hartwall Arena, setting a new record for a season in Finland. If some had doubts about freezing old local rivalries with the likes of HIFK in the Liiga, the numbers through the door have answered those fears, at least from Jokerit’s perspective.
For many the attraction of seeing a Finnish team taking on the best Russian clubs offers a new allure, and that sense of representing the country also affects many of the players.
Defenceman Oskari Korpikari scored Jokerit’s game-winner in Saturday’s 4-1 win over Dynamo, helping to tie the series after an overtime loss in Friday’s opening clash. He has some experience of playing for the Finnish national team, including a World Junior bronze on home ice in 2004, and feels that some of the spirit of the international game can be found with Jokerit.
“When we play in the KHL it really feels like it’s a game for the national team,” he said. “When they are playing the anthems before the game it makes you feel that you are representing the whole of Finland.”
The quality of opposition is also close to international hockey, according to Korpikari. “There are lots of skilful players here and we’re up against the best in Europe night after night,” he said. “For players like me that’s a great chance to improve and to grow as a player.”
There’s another big attraction for Finnish prospects at Jokerit – the chance to work with experienced head coach Erkka Westerlund, the man who led Finland to medals at last year’s Olympics and World Championship. In those tournaments he called on several Russian-based players from the KHL, including Jori Lehtera and Leo Komarov, who now play in the NHL.
However, Jokerit’s recruitment policy did not rely on rounding up the existing Finnish contingent in the KHL. The club’s budget is relatively modest compared with the giants of the Russian game, so Westerlund’s roster is built on a mix of talent sourced from the national championship seasoned with a few old-timers including Niko Kapanen, Niklas Hagman and Juhamatti Aaltonen. As well as enjoying how his players have risen to the challenge, the coach sees some knock-on benefits for Kari Jalonen, his successor behind the bench for team Finland.
“The level of our games in the KHL, at least against the top teams, is similar to the World Championship or the Euro Hockey Tour,” he told IIHF.com. “Participating in the KHL gives our players a lot. It’s a great opportunity for Finnish hockey and I think we can see how it is already improving Finnish players.
“It’s a good thing for fans as well, especially when we are winning games. If we talk about the KHL as a product, as an entertainment, maybe it offers some extra value to hockey fans here in Finland.”
Even the projected problems – such as traveling 44,300 km to complete regular season fixtures from Vladivostok to Bratislava – proved to be manageable. “They warned us that the travel would be a big issue and it would be difficult to manage all the arrangements for the team on the road but in the end everything worked out well. I’d even say it was better than I expected.”
Results back up Westerlund’s thoughts – Jokerit’s away record was the third best in the competition, collecting more than 50% of the points on offer on its grand tour.
That record gives every reason for confidence when the Western Conference quarter-final series continues in Minsk on Monday evening with the teams are tied at 1-1 in the best-of-seven contest. There’s everything to play for, and having negotiated the regular season Jokerit is determined to keep putting a smile on its fans’ faces.
“We’re not hanging our hats [on reaching the play-offs],” said talismanic forward Moses. “We all have higher goals than that.”