On Saturday morning (9 AM Eastern) the SHL Finals between the dynasty that is Skellefteå AIK, with six finals appearances in a row, and titles from 2013 and 2014, and Frölunda HC, the big city club that took Skellefteå's blueprint and refined it, kicks off.
The best of seven series between the two clubs is something that has Swedish media salivating about potential matchups and storylines. The top two seeds from the regular season will face off in a bid to lift the LeMat Trophy.
In Sweden, the series is being hailed as one for the ages. The clubs have formed a rivalry in their recent battles as the clear-cut top two of the SHL, and it is these clubs that have led the development of Swedish talent in recent years. Both are clubs that young talent wants and chooses to play for. Carl Grundström (projected first-round selection in 2016 NHL Draft) and Victor Olofsson (a Buffalo Sabres prospect) recently joined Frölunda after leaving the relegated Modo program).
Skellefteå and Frölunda are the teams to emulate as they play the new possession-style hockey, built on speed and creativity. Their head coaches and assistants are in high demand. Hans Wallson, the head coach of Skellefteå who was at the helm for their two consecutive championships, is rumoured to be heading to the Swiss NLA's Zurich Lions next season, and Robert Ohlsson, an assistant in Frölunda, is rumoured to be the new head coach of the SHL's Djurgården in 2016-17.
At the most basic level, the series is a battle of two disparate entities: the City versus the Country; the South versus the North. It's the classic storyline that fuels emotions all over Sweden.
When Skellefteå returned to the SHL ten years ago, Frölunda had just lost a final to Färjestad. Frölunda had not made the finals since, while Skellefteå has been in the finals more often than not since gaining entry to the top tier. Now they are the two best teams in Sweden, and will face off against each other in what, hopefully, will be an epic series.
After that last finals qualification a decade ago, Frölunda had middling results for the next several years. The organization was finally able to find some stability when Roger Rönnberg, the coach that had led Sweden to the World Junior Championship in 2012, took over behind the bench. In a bid to get back to the success in the early 00s, it was decided that local young talent should be the core of the team, and who better to lead that transition than the coach of the gold-medal-winning junior team?
Skellefteå is a small town on the Baltic coast in the north of Sweden. Hockey is religion there, and they sell out the arena for the first practice every year — even when the club was in the second-tier Allsvenskan). The team had neither the money nor the prestige at the time of their promotion to the SHL (then Elitserien), so they went the local player development route. After having to win the relegation battle at the end of their first year, they have never been in danger of returning to the Allsvenskan, and their success helped to attract greater talent to their development program, leading them to their standing as the best teams in Swedish hockey.
Since December, it was clear that these two teams were the true contenders in the SHL, with Skellefteå finishing as deserving regular season champions. Now that the season has come to a proper showdown between the top two clubs, the final will answer and questions about which team is the best in the nation.
It's a dead heat in the crease, though Frölunda may have the backup battle won, but hopefully the series won't come down to injuries and reserve goalkeepers. Johan Gustafsson (a Minnesota Wild property) stepped in for an injured Lars Johansson in the series versus Luleå, and helped keep his team in the series..
Markus Svensson is guarding the goal for Skellefteå, and is a stellar goalkeeper. He and Johansson have been nominated for the Goaltender of the Year award this season; Svensson's second nomination, and Johansson's first.
As mentioned, both teams play a possession-type system, with mobile defenders making it possible; something many have come to expect of Swedish defencemen nowadays. A few stand out: Tim Heed and Sebastian Aho in Skellefteå; Jacob Larsson and Lukas Bengtsson in Frölunda. Aho and Bengtsson are undrafted, with rumours placing Bengtsson on the New York Rangers' roster next season, whereas Larsson was selected one position after the Canadiens' first-round slot in 2015, by the Anaheim Ducks.
Skellefteå's Anton Lindholm was drafted by Colorado in 2014, and provides a physical presence in the top four, while Anaheim's second-round pick in 2015, Marcus Pettersson, has had a tough playoffs and been demoted to watch the games from the stands (we have no press box in Sweden).
On the forward side, it is Frölunda who holds the upper hand, with Ryan Lasch having won the scoring title for the regular season and currently on top of the standings in the playoffs, as well. Shadowing him is the Montreal Canadiens' own Artturi Lehkonen. He has scored the most goals in the playoffs, and will definitely look to increase that number.
One player in Frölunda who has had a quiet post-season so far is Andreas Johnson (Toronto Maple Leafs) and a breakout in the final series could be the deciding factor.
The prospect who has taken the biggest strides in the playoffs is Christoffer Ehn (Detroit Red Wings), a two-way centre who's line has been matched up against the opponent's top line more often than not. While not holding down a regular spot during the season, he has been great in the playoffs and proven to Rönnberg that he should be in the lineup.
A returning player from New York Islanders, Johan Sundström has been outstanding the whole season, including in his time on the Swedish national team, and there are countless rumours about a return to NHL next season.
In Skellefteå, a lot centres around the top line of Andrew Calof, Patrik Zackrisson, and Mattias Ritola. Last year's top playoff scorer, Axel Holmström, should draw a lot of attention from opponents and spectators alike. He's had a quiet post-season so far, and he was out with an undisclosed injury in Wednesday's Game Seven versus Växjö, but everyone knows what he's capable of. With players as good as Erik Forssell and Janne Pesonen on the fourth line, you realize the depth of the team in Skellefteå.
There are two Canadians in the series: Calof of Ottawa for Skellefteå, and Hamilton's Spencer Abbott for Frölunda. Two Americans can also be found in Frölunda: Joey Crabb of Anchorage, and the previously mentioned Ryan Lasch from Lake Forest, California.
Each squad has a major player as captain. Skellefteå has Jimmie Ericsson, who won the KHL's Gagarin Cup last year with SKA St Petersburg. He bleeds Skellefteå AIK as the heart and soul of the team, and was part of the club that got promoted all those years ago.
He has a medal of each colour from the World Championship, and an Olympic silver medal from Sochii to go with that Gagarin Cup and the two LeMat Trophies that Skellefteå has already claimed. He is an undisputed leader and someone that can carry the team if needed. Ericsson is the Justin Williams of Sweden, having been involved in six games seven, and yet to be on the losing end.
Frölunda's captain usually gets to hear that he is the second-best hockey player in the family. Joel Lundqvist is the twin brother of Henrik, the goaltender of the New York Rangers. Except for his time with the Dallas Stars for the 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons, he has been Frölunda's leader.
He was part of the team the last time Frölunda won the championship, in 2005. He also holds a whole set of World Championship medals with an added gold for bonus, along with the Champions Hockey League title from earlier this season. He is gritty and tough and leads his team by example. This season he has had a resurgence in his point production, thanks to a deadly power play.
Both these players have many things in common, but the thing they share most is that they will both step up when the game is on the line.
The final series of the SHL's 2015-16 season will showcase the best of Swedish hockey at the moment. The series promises to be a long one, and the team that emerges victorious can claim it has beaten the very best competition.