For the eighth time since 2001, Farjestads BK Karlstad has advanced to the finals of the Swedish Elite League playoffs. Winners of three championships in the last decade and five titles since 1997, Farjestad has made a regular habit of coming on when it counts regardless of how it played during the Elitserien regular season.
This season, the club placed second via tie-breaker during the regular season (first-place HV 71 Jonkoping, Farjestad and third-place Skelleftea AIK all finished with 96 points), but in the past Farjestad twice has reached the finals and won one championship when entering the postseason as a No. 4-seed.
In the first round of the 2011 playoffs, Farjestad dispatched Brynas IF Gavle in five games. FBK then swept AIK Stockholm in four games after AIK stunned the Swedish hockey community by sweeping last season's champion, HV 71, in the quarterfinals. The finals will start in Karlstad on April 5, with Farjestad facing the winner of the semifinal series between Skelleftea and Lulea HF.
Although FBK has had to play only nine games to date in the postseason, Farjestad players occupy the top three spots in the playoff scoring race. After being limited to 32 games during the regular season (in which he scored 9 goals and 21 points to go along with a team-leading plus-13 rating), former Minnesota Wild and Toronto Maple Leafs center Rickard Wallin leads all postseason scorers with 10 points (3 goals, 7 assists). He is in the first season of a four-year contract.
"Obviously we are a better team when Wallin has been healthy and available to us," said FBK coach Tommy Samuelsson. "He's our captain and a leader, but the team as a whole understands the challenge ahead of us. So far, we've been up to the challenge."
Mikael Johansson, FBK's second-leading scorer during the regular season with 35 points, is one point behind Wallin, with 3 goals and 9 points in the postseason. A 2003 ninth-round pick of the Detroit Red wings, the 25-year-old was held off the scoreboard in the last three games of the semifinals but was a driving force early in the first round against Brynas. Left wing Per Aslund has 4 goals and 4 assists to rank third in playoff scoring. Dick Axelsson was crucial to closing out the AIK series, and has 4 goals and 6 points.
The offensive productivity of these players has helped make up for a disappointing playoff so far from veteran Pelle Prestberg, the club's leading scorer (10 goals, 36 points in 48 games) during the regular season. With the exception of a strong playoff scoring performance in FBK's run to the 2006 championship, the small but shifty Prestberg generally has been known as a player who is more effective during the regular season.
In the nine playoff games to date this postseason, Prestberg has been held to a single goal and no assists. He had to leave the clinching game against AIK early after colliding with AIK's Richard Zednik. Prestberg's replacement, 19-year-old Erik Thorell, suffered an apparent concussion and also was forced out of the game.
"There's no danger," Prestberg said in describing his injury to Swedish newspaper Expressen. "It's something that happens. I have no idea if it was dirty. We just collided."
Prestberg's status for the opening game of the finals remains to be seen, but the early indications are that he should be available. In the meantime, other players have stepped up to carry the offensive load, and goaltender Alexander Salak has carried his strong regular-season play into the postseason.
Salak, whose NHL rights were traded in February from the Florida Panthers to the Chicago Blackhawks, has posted a 2.15 goals against average and .914 save percentage so far in the playoffs. During the regular season, he led the league with seven shutouts, ranked second in the league to Lulea's Anders Nilsson with a 1.97 GAA and was edged by Djurgardens' Mark Owuya by the slimmest of margins for the top save percentage (.927 to Salak's .926).
When Salak was hampered by a shoulder injury sustained in the third game of the semifinals, Samuelsson entrusted FBK backup goaltender Cristopher Nihlstorp with the starting duties in what proved to be the clinching game. Nihlstorp responded by turning back 24 of 25 shots.
Regardless of whether FBK plays Skelleftea or Lulea in the finals, it's likely the games will be close. Elitserien in general is a fairly low-scoring league. Lulea allowed the fewest goals in the league this season, with FBK second. Meanwhile, Skelleftea tied for the league lead in goals, but relies heavily on veteran goalie Andreas Hadelov.
Thus far in the playoffs, at least, FBK has handled close games very well. In the quarterfinal series against Brynas, Farjestad won the opener 7-3. Each of the next four games, however, were decided by one goal, with two of the games going to overtime (FBK and BIF took turns defeating the other on the road). In the semifinals AIK goaltender Viktor Fasth kept his team close and every game was decided either by one goal or a two-goal margin created by a late-game empty netter.
Farjestad also has shown an ability to shrug off early deficits. In all four games of the AIK series, the Stockholm club scored the game's first goal. Likewise, in all four games, FBK knotted the score before the end of the opening period and then went on to win.