After months of hockey among some of the best Europe has to offer, the Champions Hockey League draws to a close tonight as the Frölunda Indians search for their third CHL title in four appearances over the past five seasons, and they’ll be taking on Red Bull Munich of Germany who are making their debut in the final, being the first German representative to make it to this stage of the tournament.
Last year was the first time ever a Swedish side hasn’t won the competition, as Finnish side JYP Jyväskylä won a close fought final over the Växjö Lakers, shutting out the Lakers who also hosted the final in a 2 – 0 final score.
It was the first time Frölunda haven’t made the final as well, crashing out in the first knockout round after an impressive group stage performance, while Red Bull Munich also crashed out in the first knockout round for the third straight year, before finally breaking their curse this year and winning a playoff series for the first time.
Both sides have had fairly similar routes to this point, both impressing in their groups to advance to the knockout rounds, and then they both survived a scare in the round of 16, beating their opposition by just a single goal, before their paths to the finally differed as Frölunda eased their way through the next two rounds, while Munich relied heavily on their goaltending on their route to the final, and goaltending will have to be their strength tonight as they look to upset the heavily favoured hosts from securing their third CHL crown.
Since the two sides made the final by winning their semi-final matchups, Frölunda have had a severe dip in form, and coming into Tuesdays meeting they’ve won just twice since their 3 – 1 win over HC Pilsen in the second leg of their semi-final meeting, losing their last four straight, while Munich on the other hand come in on the back of six straight victories, extending a streak without a loss that dates back to January 4th when they last dropped points in league action against former Sheffield Steelers head coach Paul Thompson and his side the Schweninger Wild Wings.
Since that game, Red Bull have won every game apart from their semi-final first leg against Red Bull Salzburg that ended in a scoreless tie, earning both goaltenders a shutout for just the second time in CHL history after ZSC Lions Zurich and the Vaxjö Lakers played a scoreless first leg of their quarterfinals matchup in the 2016/17 season.
As they’ve done every year they’ve been in the competition, Frölunda finished their group stage in first place, finishing top of Group A ahead of ZSC Lions Zurich on goal difference (both with 13 points), while the Vienna Capitals of Austria and Danish side Aalborg Pirates both crashed out at the first hurdle and did not advance any further.
Last season was the first time Frölunda haven’t made a CHL final, and that was thanks to Bílí Tygři Liberec who overturned a 3 – 2 deficit in the first leg of the first knockout round, coming back to win 6 – 4 in OT to end a two-year reign at the top for Frölunda who had beaten Oulun Kärpät and HC Sparta Praha in the previous two finals, after losing in the inaugural final against that year’s winners Luleå HC.
This year the Indians were close to another first round exit, narrowly getting past Swiss side HC Lugano. The two sides played to a 1 – 1 draw at the end of 60 minutes, and it was more of a goal fest when the sides met in the second leg, eventually ending in favour of the Swedish side who emerged with a 5 – 4 win on the night, coming from 3 – 1 behind in an evening where the leading scorer heading into Tuesday’s final and former CHL MVP, Ryan Lasch, played a part in all but one of Frölunda’s goals, including scoring the game winner in the 54th minute.
Since then it’s been a lot more of an easy ride to the final, dismantling two Czech sides in the next two rounds, cruising to a massive 10 – 2 win over the two legs against Kometa Brno and then another big win, finishing 9 – 4 against HC Plzeň to secure their place in the final.
Much like their opponents, Munich were on the cusp during the first knockout round as they took on EV Zug, going into the second leg a goal behind and needing defensive improvements to keep their CHL dreams alive.
They got exactly what they needed as Danny aus den Birken put in a tremendous performance in net in the second leg, stopping all 37 shots he faced, doing his bit to stave off an attack from Zug, and with goals from Justin Shugg and Frank Mauer, it helped see Red Bull Munich past the first knockout round for the first time ever.
While Frölunda had an easier time of it in the following rounds, it was a lot more tense for Munich during the next two series’.
After the first leg of the quarterfinals, they held a narrow 2– 1 draw against the Malmö Redhawks who they’ve faced in their group stage, and then in the second leg it was a much more offensive display, with Munich eventually skating away from their trip to Sweden with a 5 – 5 draw on the evening being enough for Munich to advance thanks to an overtime winner from Trevor Parkes, just one of his tournament leading nine goals.
After the quarterfinals it was on to face the other Red Bull side, Red Bull Salzburg who topped their group that also featured the EIHL representatives, the Cardiff Devils.
Both sides were scoreless at the end of 60 minutes for the second time ever in the CHL knockout rounds, but then as the tie returned to Salzburg, and in front of a sold out crowd Munich came from a goal behind to take a 3 – 1 win on the evening and book their place as the first ever German team to make it to the final.
Both sides have caught the injury bug ahead of the final. Frölunda have split time between their goaltending duo of Johan Matsson and Johan Gustaffsson through the tournament, but with Mattson expected to be out through injury, it’ll be Gustafsson who gets the nod to start, with the side calling up Tex Williamsson from Allsvenskan side Tingsryds AIK to act as an emergency backup, while they’ll be without Gustav Lindström and Mattias Nørstebø on defence, but Finnish forward Joel Mustonen may return from injury in time for the final, after the 26-year-old has put up five points through nine appearances in the CHL.
Munich on the other hand have suffered an even greater loss in the form of John Mitchell who’s been the teams key playmaker over the course of the tournament, scoring twice and grabbing a team best 12 assists which is also second best in the CHL behind Ryan Lasch of Frölunda. The forward will miss the final through a leg injury, while they’ll also be without other forwards like Mads Christensen, Justin Jaffray and Maximilian Kastner, meaning they’ll be without three of their six top scoring forwards in CHL action this year in Mitchell, Kastner and Christensen who put up six points in just four CHL games this year.
Tonight will draw to a close another exciting year of Champions Hockey League action, and with next years competitors starting to be announced as teams qualify through their domestic standings, it’s just a couple of months until the all-important group stage draw and a summer of planning European city breaks for the fan base of whichever EIHL side qualifies as league champions this year, before the competition starts all over again in August.