The same rhetoric surfaces every year come the play-offs. No matter what the level or the nation, when crunch time comes the cliché that experience will win out. Wily veterans are sought for play-off runs, their grit and familiarity with the pressure are championed.
On Wednesday night in the town of Gävle, the stakes could not have been much higher. Even through the medium of television you could feel the tense atmosphere inside the Gavlerinken Arena as the players skated out onto the ice for warm-ups. The equation was simple.
If Brynäs lost their season would be over.
The odds were stacked against them – they were written off by the press, Frölunda acted as if the series was close to over, and the opposing coach, Roger Rönnberg, was questioning their physical conditioning. To add injury to insult their best defenseman – ex-Flyers prospect Simon Bertilsson – was concussed the previous game by an unpunished, dirty head-shot, and would therefore be in the press-box alongside fellow veteran defenseman Elias Fälth. Speaking of the referees, it had also seemed like over the course of the series that Brynäs had been playing against them as well as Frölunda.
A perfect storm. It seemed many had already pencilled the Gothenburg side into the final.
Then on game-day it was announced that Brynäs starter David Rautio was still sick, and therefore Felix Sandström – hung out to dry on multiple occasions previously in the series – would have to start. Frölunda’s odds with the bookmakers rose even more.
Eight minutes into the game and it would be easy to have switched the TV off and declared Frölunda the winners. Brynäs looked done. They had managed to get the puck over the red-line only once so far in the game with possession, and their opposition had already had several good chances. The only reason the Southern Swedish side were not a couple of goals ahead was due the play of 20-year-old Felix Sandström.
He denied Figren with a fantastic diving save to keep the puck from crossing the line, and also stopped both Wellman and Grundström in close. Shots were 10-1 in favour of the visiting teams favour at that point. It seemed only a matter of time until the flood-gates opened.
But Sandström’s high level of play had paid dividends. From out of no-where, as the clock approached the nine minute mark, Johan Alcén beat out an icing call after jumping off the bench. The Westerholm twins then took over and the result was a goal. The traveling Frölunda fans were silenced – but only briefly – as their team went right back down the other end and got off four more shots without a Brynäs reply.
The first release of this pressure came as the Flyers own Lindblom and his line mates got through the neutral zone. Lindblom picked up the puck on the left wing and threaded a beautiful pass to Kevin Clark all alone on the edge of the crease. But just as the diminutive Canadian seemed poised to bury the rubber biscuit into the gaping net he was tripped from behind. Power-play. Forty seconds later and it is déjà vu. Lindblom picked up the puck in the left circle and deposited a perfect pass through traffic onto Clark’s stick – who finished the chance off and put his side 2-0 to the good.
Frölunda did not have much time to feel sorry for themselves before the score was 3-0. Zaborsky rammed home the puck after some good work by the Westerholm’s.
Brynäs had six shots and three goals. Ruthless. Each chance the home team had they pounced upon.
From that moment onwards the resplendent Frölunda side of the game’s first act was gone. They looked beaten and broken. They struggled to get any offensive pressure, and seemed far more timid than they had at any point in the series.
Their structured neutral zone system fell apart as they allowed zone entries left, right and center, their fore-checking looked laboured. In the thirteen minutes of game-time after Brynäs scored their third goal the visitors had one measly shot. In the mean-time the Gävle side scored two more goals to see the game off. Both goals had a helping hand from Lindblom.
Three minutes into the second period the hometown hero raced down the left wing – creating a 1-on-1 for himself. He fired off a quick wrister from the circle that glanced off the goalie and into the side of the cage. Defenseman John Nyberg picked up the puck behind the net and attempted to clear his own zone. Lindblom however intercepted the puck and quickly pinged a pass to Clark, who had continued skating towards the net. The puck was deposited wise ease and the score was 4-0.
Two minutes later, Clark completed his hat-trick.
Lindblom had received the puck from Jensen in the midst of a goal-mouth scramble and looked certain to score on a gaping net. However, he was tripped from behind and the puck slid into the post while he slid into the net. An opposition defenseman got there first, but Clark intercepted the puck and buried it into the net from mere feet away. At this point some visiting fans could be seen to be making their way to the exits, ready to depart on the 300+ mile journey back home.
From there on out the game was a relatively quiet one for the Flyers young charges. Both had been integral in securing a certain win and taking the semi-final series to a seventh game. Lindblom and his line-mates were effectively rested from this point onwards – he saw only two shifts in the third period, both on the power-play. Sandström still had some work to do though to maintain his hard earned shut-out.
The last ten minutes of the game heeded the biggest chances for a consolation goal. The first came when Bergenheim tipped a puck from the slot, but the young goalie tracked it well and snared it in his chest, allowing no rebound. Then came the moment – pinching defenseman Tömmernes got by the Brynäs defense, forced Sandström to go down, took the puck to his background and elevated it towards goal – but instead of the sound of cheers it was met with a thud. Sandström had thrown out a glove while down on ice to deny the offensive minded defenseman. It was a fantastic save and one that summed up the Flyers prospects night. He was unbeatable, 32 shots came at him over the 60 minutes, and 32 saves were made.
Agitating veteran center Granström put the cherry on top for his side with only two seconds left. Alone on a breakaway he faked a shot and let the puck slide five-hole on goalie Bakala. Fitting considering opposition coach Rönnberg had questioned their ability to keep playing for the entire 60 minutes.
Yes – the veterans played their part. Blomqvist and Granström tirelessly toiled for their team and Clark scored a quick-fire hat-trick. But were it not for the play of a 20 year old goalie the result may well have been different. Sandström and Lindblom both played brilliant games for the team they grew up supporting, two twenty year olds standing out against grizzled veterans, ex-NHLers and Olympians.
But the task is not over. On Friday, in the raucous Scandinavium arena in Gothenburg, the winner takes all. It would be no surprise if that game is not decided by experience, or guile, or grit – but by the skill and determination of two of the youngest players on ice.