In a dramatic game in Raksila last night, Kärpät progressed to their third successive final at the expense of Blues. The game followed a familiar pattern: Blues opened the scoring, as they had done in all the previous encounters in this series, in a fast and skillful opening period. The first penalty of the game was against Jari Viuhkola for hooking after 10:08, and was almost spent when the dangerous Toni Kähkönen collected the puck on the right and headed directly for goal with just the last defender and Tuomas Tarkki to beat. Unfortunately for us, the “defender” turned out to be Jonas Andersson, whose idea of what to do in this situation probably won’t be found in too many coaching manuals. Having skipped round the prone Andersson, Kähkönen found the corner of the net with aplomb. Blues’ lead lasted until they got their first penalty, when Kristian Kuusela hammered past Mikko Koskinen from Josef Boumedienne’s pass. A goal each at the first break.
The less said about the second period, the better. We coughed up two simple goals that should never have seen the light of day. In just over a minute, Ryan Keller restored the visitors’ lead and then Tomi Ståhlhammar stretched it. The arrears were reduced to 2-3 mid-way through the final period when Justin Forrest added another to his tally, and then came the final throw of the dice in the last minutes when Tarkki headed for the bench and the home side played with a man advantage but an empty net behind them. Ben Eaves almost found the unguarded goal from long range, and had he done so then the 7th game, planned for tomorrow, might well have been needed. Such is how things go, though, and with just 34 seconds remaining, aged Ilves reject Vesa Viitakoski popped up yet again to level the scores at 3-3.
Extra time was just 37 seconds old when Kuusela got 2 minutes for high sticking. Less than half a minute later Kärpät had their backs against the wall when Boumedienne joined his colleague in the penalty bin, after carelessly directing his clearance straight into the crowd. Talking of which, the crowd was more than 1000 below capacity. Bearing in mind that, whatever the outcome, this was Kärpät’s last home game in the semi-final, that’s a far from impressive turn out, writes one who watched this particular game from the comfort of a friend’s front room in Kokkola. One wonders, however, to what extent Stockmann’s Hullut Päivät affected the crowd figures. Presumably somewhat more than friends’ daughter’s birthday parties, er… Meanwhile, across town in Raksila, a hard-working Kärpät defence kept Blues to no serious shots on goal for the full minute and a half of the two man advantage. Half a minute later the home side were back to full strength, and less than 40 seconds after that Blues were out. The talented yet enigmatic Juhamatti Aaltonen received the puck and went on one of his meandering skateabouts that all too frequently end in frustrating nothingness. This time, however, the end resulted in pandemonium. He created space for himself in front of net and then rattled the puck into the top corner past a helpless Koskinen.
It’s difficult to find myself writing this, but there’s nothing wrong with this Blues side. They play fast and attractive ice hockey in a manner that is starting to heal the gaping sore created by Markku Tuomainen’s witless hack on Petr Tenkrat all those years ago. Of all the SM-liiga sides, Blues accrued the least penalty minutes for the whole of this season’s runkosarja. They’ve transformed themselves from expensive, under-achieving sausage munchers, into serious Championship contenders in just a couple of seasons. While we were piddling around the nether regions of the CHL’s inaugral season, Blues were trumpetting their way into the semis. Their travelling support to Oulu has reached such proportions that it now fills a minibus.
So why didn’t they beat us? Not by any stretch of the imagination were Blues without the opportunity to win this semi-final. Yesterday they led 1-3 with one period to go, and still led by a goal with a little over half a minute of the hour still to run, but were pegged back. In extra time, they had a two man advantage for a full 90 seconds, but couldn’t make that tell. In the previous game in Espoo, they opened up a 2-0 lead, but in the defensive carnage that followed, went down 5-7. In the third game, also in Espoo, Blues led 2-1 before Boumedienne rescued Kärpät with just 41 seconds on the clock. Five minutes into extra time Tarkki pulled off a stupendous save to deny a bewildered Petri Kokko, and in the next attack Tommi Paakkolanvaara ended a 30 game goal drought to secure victory for the visitors. Of their 4 defeats in this semi-final series, Blues led in all of them at some stage, in two of them by two goals, and in two of the games were within 45 seconds of victory, having an empty net at the other end to take pot shots at. Perhaps the same thing can be viewed from a different perspective.
Of Kärpät’s 4 victories in this semi-final series, we trailed in all of them at some stage, in two of them by two goals, and in two of the games were within 45 seconds of defeat. We forced both these games to extra time, but in both faced further prospect of defeat. However, when it really mattered, we found the resources first to survive, and then turn defeat into victory. Today’s local rag, Kaleva, printed a statistic about Kärpät’s play off games of the last 6 seasons. Of these games, 17 have gone into extra time, and of these, just 2 have been lost. That’s a rather lop-sided statistic, but a very handy one to have in the play offs, where every game is a cup final.
There’s nothing either new or unique about any of this, of course. There have been plenty of teams in many different sports whose resilience in trying circumstances has resulted in their sustained success. Against JyP in the final, this ability to dig ourselves out of sizeable holes might be called upon again. Their well-financed resurgence in the last couple of seasons has seen them be the only team to have a league points surplus against us for both seasons. What they might not quite have to the same degree is hardened experience of the play offs.
The third place match will be between Blues and KalPa. Victory for the Kuopiolaiset will ensure that the top three spots in SM-liiga belong to the league’s three northernmost clubs.