Espoo Blues progress to semi-finals of Champions Hockey League
Finnish title-holders Kärpät out of the running
A 2-1 victory on home ice over SC Bern of Switzerland was enough to see Espoo Blues, last season's runners-up in the Finnish Championship, through to the semi-final stage of this year's IIHF Hockey Champions League.
Espoo Blues, who were playing in Group B of the tournament, now have an unassailable 9 points from their three matches, and the final encounter away to HV71 of Sweden is effectively a dead match.
Blues beat Bern home and away (3-1), and also overcame the Swedes in their home fixture 3-2.
Wednesday's game had a shock opening for the hosts, as Bern scored short-handed through Christian Dube after only 47 seconds.
Bern nevertheless needed a big win by at least six goals to have any chance of qualifying, and an equaliser from Juuso Puustinen after six minutes of the first period, followed by a second goal nine minutes later from Ryan Keller put paid to their hopes and ended the scoring in the match.
Blues will next play either Zürich Lions or Slavia Prague on January 10th and February 7th for a place in the final.
The semi-final opponent will be decided on the final game in Group D, where the Czech team have a two-point advantage and so can afford to lose in overtime or on penalties and still progress.
This is the inaugural season of the Champions Hockey League, a competition loosely modelled on the ECL in football, and is being played between 12 teams from seven countries (two teams each from Russia, the Czech Republic, Sweden and Finland, one team each from Switzerland, Germany and Slovakia, and a 12th team from one of these three countries, as determined in a qualification tournament, which was won in this case by SC Bern).
Finland's other participant, Kärpät of Oulu, have been quite successful in the earlier incarnation of this tournament, the International Ice Hockey Federation's European Champions Cup.
They were runners-up in 2005 and 2006, but despite the fact that they are the reigning Finnish champions they came up seriously short in their CHL matches in Group A this year.
A 3-1 away defeat to group-winners Metallurg Magnitogorsk of Russia means they will finish bottom of the group, regardless of the outcome of the one remaining game between Magnitogorsk and Eisbären of Berlin.
Metallurg Magnitogorsk will play another Russian outfit, Salavat Yulaev Ufa, in the second semi-final.
The winners of the tournament can expect to collect a cheque for EUR 1 million, and Espoo Blues have already earned themselves 350,000 euros for winning three group stage games and securing a semi-final berth.
All twelve teams taking part were guaranteed EUR 300,000 in appearance money, regardless of their success on the ice.
European Champions Hockey League (Wikipedia)
Espoo Blues (Wikipedia)
Espoo Blues Official Site (in Finnish, summary in English)