As four teams pull away from the pack in the chase for the President’s Trophy, let’s focus attention a few spots down to a team riding a 6-game win streak whose hallmark is toughness and strong defense.
When you play the Helsinki Jokerit, you can count on a few things: death, taxes and powerplay chances for your team.
In Finland, taking penalties is a team effort. The Jokerit don’t have a player in the top 10 in penalty minutes, but there are three in the next 10. As a team, they average almost 16 minutes per game and are the EURO League’s most penalized team. Among their weapons are pesky forwards whose mission in life is to take opponents off their games. Brad Marchand, Alex Burrows, Zack Smith and Ryan Clowe are, in nicest terms, not a pleasure to play against. And if tensions get too high, Kyle Clifford and Justin Abdelkader are waiting on the fourth line, ready to oblige your team tough guy.
Are they too aggressive? Too undisciplined? That doesn’t appear to be the case. Helsinki is doing pretty well in the standings, although a lot of that might have to do with Henrik Lunqvist. They are second in the Kharlamov Division behind Moscow and in fourth place in the Northern Conference, comfortably in the playoff picture although there are still 30 games to be played.
Lately, Helsinki has been pouring pucks into opponents’ nets with Jarome Iginla, Paul Stastny and Ryan Clowe all recording multi-goal games in the last two weeks. And lately they seem confident they can pull games out of the fire. In their last game, Stastny scored an overtime winner to knock off Stockholm and two games before that, Jack Johnson tallied with 2:11 left to beat St. Petersburg.
A turning point in the season might have come six games ago. Before their game against Milan, Helsinki was looking for someone or something to pull them out of their doldrums. A game before, they were manhandled by Frankfurt 6-0 – their fourth straight loss.
Late in the second period against Milan, Helsinki had a 4-2 lead and were probably wondering how they were going to blow this one. Milan’s Steve Ott attempted to turn momentum by goading Helsinki’s captain and leading goal scorer into a fight. Iginla accepted the invitation and two veterans hammered away at each other, Iginla getting the best of it in his teammates’ eyes. He at least held steady and didn’t lose the fight. In the third period, the Jokerit followed his lead, held steady and didn’t lose the game.
In the next game, with the proverbial monkey off their back and Iginla looking more majestic than ever to them, the Jokerit outshot and out-scored Madrid. They were definitely tough, taking 10 penalties and Clowe scored a pair of goals. Next up, division-leading Moscow. In that one, they were more careful, giving Spartak just 4 powerplays, and goalie Lundqvist was stellar. A 6-1 blowout for the underdogs.
On to St. Petersburg, 9 more penalties and a 3-2 win thanks to Johnson’s late heroics. Then Minsk fell 5-0 to Helsinki for Lundqvist’s fifth straight win.
Against Stockholm, Helsinki made it 6 straight with Richard Bachman in goal. It was a wild affair. Helsinki players went to the penalty box 11 times, but fortunately for them, Stockholm was only able to capitalize once. Helsinki did better with the man advantage, scoring 3 goals in 10 tries. Still, it was 5-5 when regulation time expired. Helsinki committed two penalties early in overtime, but survived 1:49 of 5-on-3 play. Then Stockholm was called for too many men on the ice and Stastny made them pay with his 17th goal of the season with just 36 seconds left on the clock.
The Jokerit will put their win streak on the line tonight in St. Petersburg with Lundqvist back in goal. The same teams will face off again two nights later in Finland.