There is a battle royale going on in the SHL Final at the moment, albeit a lopsided one through the first three games. Skellefteå AIK has been in the Final seven out of the last eight years, and are taking on the upstart Växjö Lakers. The Lakers had won the first two opening games, 7-0 at home and 4-0 away, before the third game on Saturday.
While Skellefteå is a classic team in Swedish hockey history (the team won the championship in 1978) it had spent 16 years in the second division before earning a promotion at the end of the 2006 season. They won the relegation round in 2007 and have never missed the playoffs since, with the lowest placing in the regular season being eighth.
Starting in 2011 they had seven Final appearances, with two championships to show for them. Last season was the first that Skellefteå missed out on the battle for the Le Mat Trophy in six years after losing Game Seven away to Frölunda.
Created in 1997 after a bankruptcy of Växjö HC, it took Växjö some time to break into the SHL. They won their promotion in 2011 and have never seen the relegation series since; finishing 10th in 2013 is the lowest point of their short but successful tenure.
The Lakers haven’t been as consistent as Skellefteå, but they managed to end the Skellefteå reign, and Skellefteås chance for a threepeat in 2015. Växjö has been knocked out surprisingly, and dramatically, in the last two playoffs, but they are back in the Final after a season in which they won the regular season 21 points ahead of the second-place team.
In Saturday’s Game Three, Skellefteå managed to stand up to Växjö for two periods, then it was all done. Växjö’s 2-1 goal at the end of the second period looked to have broken the backs of the Skellefteå players. The game finished 4-1, and it is still stands as the closest game out of the three that have been played so far.
In the middle of it all it, a tall, skinny kid at 20 years of age, the Vancouver Canucks’ next Super-Swede: Elias Pettersson. With two goals — including the demoralizing game-winner — and an assist in Saturday’s game, Pettersson has accumulated 17 points (8G, 9A) in the post-season, giving him an incredible 1.4 points-per-game pace. For comparison, the top scorer in the Swedish playoff history — Bud Holloway in 2012 — had 23 points over 19 games for 1.2 points per game when he set the record. It seems the Lakers’ destruction of Skellefteå in the Final could cost Pettersson an entry into the history books.
At the post-game press conference, Skellefteå coach Bert Robertsson looked almost dejected, foregoing the Swedish tradition of giving a bit of an analysis before the press can ask questions, instead asking for questions directly.
Eyes On The Prize got a few words alone with Växjö’s coach, Sam Hallam, after the game, and it’s almost with a tired smile that Mr. Hallam says “Everyone thinks that we are tired about speaking about Elias Pettersson, but we aren’t. He is a fantastic kid, and displays his best hockey when there is the most to play for. He inspires our whole team [with his attitude]. It is also great to see him shoulder that responsibility”.
While Mr. Hallam thinks that Pettersson has raised his game another step in the playoffs, he is also quick to point out that “It is a big challenge for him to recharge for the next game with games every other day, and it is tough playoff games, too. But, as in today’s game, even if he doesn’t start out in a good way, he will identify and find solutions to participate in the game on his own terms. It is Elias that screens the goalie on the first goal. He scores the second, and adds an empty-net goal too.”
They really have been Pettersson’s playoffs. He has beaten both Henrik and Daniel Sedin’s records for the playoffs before they went over to the NHL. With their retirement, the stage is lit for the next Swede to take over in Vancouver.
But first, he has one more game to win in Sweden.