Pelicans Lahti made history last weekend when they played a first ever Finnish Liiga game in Estonia.
The Tondiraba Ice Hall in Tallinna was the venue as Pelicans took on local rivals HPK Hameenlinna in what was the first of three annual games the Lahti-based side have agreed to play in the Estonian capital over the coming years.
Technically this was a ‘home’ game for the team in light blue and nearly 6,000 fans made the trip across the Baltic Sea to watch a classic game of hockey.
I was one of those who travelled, albeit from England rather than Helsinki, but this was a much different looking side to the one I last watched 14 months ago.
The two North American’s on the side from last season, Ben Blood and Justin Hodgman (along with his song), have moved on. While last season’s captain Antti Erkinjuntti, opted to play in Switzerland for this season.
Perennial title challengers HIFK prised top forwards Juhani Tyrvainen and Vili Sopanen away to join the capital-based side while veteran defenseman Pasi Puistola retired.
In fact, this was a much different looking side to the one lining up just a few weeks ago due to an ever growing injury list which has ruined what was a great start to the season.
Among the key players missing were, centers Miska Siikonen and Hannes Bjorninen. Throw in the fact Russian winger Vadim Pereskokov has returned back to his native Russia to play for Admiral Vladivostock in the KHL and it meant coach Petri Matikainen had to juggle his forward lines coming into this contest.
In the end he started with Aleksi Rekonen playing on the top line alongside Antti Tyrvainen and Joonas Alanne. While Roope Elimaki was promoted to center the second line with Jesse Mankinen and leading scorer Iikka Kangasniemi. Aleksi Mustonen, who has spent much of this season on the top line with Tyrvainen and Rekonen found himself anchoring the third unit with Kimi Koivisto and Jesse Saarinen while teenager Artturi Toivola, centered the fourth line with Taavi Vartiainen and Severi Lahtinen.
The defensive pairings saw Casimir Jurgens, a newcomer to the Pelican’s blue line this season, alongside Mikko Kousa, Czech import Libor Sulak partnering the Dane, Stefan Lassen and Nico Manelius lining up with Canadian-native, Jordan Rowley. Janne Juvonen got the start in goal.
Pelicans have now lost their last three games in a row, but much of that can be put down to the current injury crises and strange things out of their control. Just take a look at their last game with JYP for an insight into what I mean.
This was always going to be a big game for both teams given the occasion and things were far from smooth in the HPK camp. Goaltender Emil Larmi, a Junior World Champion with Finland had a game to forget against KooKoo in his previous game on Thursday, giving up six goals in a 3-6 defeat.
In what was a tight opening exchange it was Pelicans who got the breakthrough at 17:22 when Canadian Defenseman Jordan Rowley, beat Larmi, much to the delight of the massed ranked fans from Lahti who were behind that goal.
Despite the Pelicans having a reputation for playing ‘extremely aggressive’ according to the liiga website, it was HPK who was running into penalty trouble (they gave up two in the first and a further three in the second), and that finally took its toll when Jesse Mankinen converted on the powerplay after being set up nicely by Antti Tyrvainen and Jesse Saarinen.
Things were looking great with the ‘home side’ seemingly easing their way to a comfortable victory, however, HPK halved the Pelicans advantage towards the end of the second period when Ville Viitaluoma found the net. The top-line center finishing off a move from his line-mate Juho Keranen.
It was a different HPK side that took to the ice in the third period and having got that goal back, seemed to grow in confidence. Less than six minutes had elapsed when Joonas Lehtivuori combined with his defensive partner Petterti Nikkila and Otto Paajanen to tie the game at 2-2.
Having seen their lead evaporate, the Pelicans were rocking, and matters were not helped when Jordan Rowley was given a contentious penalty for allegedly delaying the game. That put HPK on the man-advantage and with 23 seconds of the penalty remaining Teemu Turunen combined with line-mate Robert Leino and Nikkila to give his side their first lead of the game.
Any thought that this was going to be marked as a classic HPK comeback would be wrong though, as having fallen behind, the Pelicans woke from their slumber and began to lay siege to their opponent’s goal.
Chance after chance seemed to go to waste until their momentum was halted following a penalty call on Libor Sulak. However, having killed off the Czech defensemen’s penalty, Pelicans could once again attack. With just over two and a half minutes left in the game they finally got their break through.
Nico Manelius fed Jesse Saarinen just below the expectant Pelicans fans watching anxiously from the stands, and it was as if their passion and chanting helped to suck the puck over the line and into the net. Saarinen’s reaction said it all with his celebration and the crowd went crazy as somehow, they had just watched their side surrender what looked like a certain win, before snatching a draw from defeat.
With three seconds of the game remaining HPK forward Turunen was called for Tripping, meaning the Pelicans would start their 3-on-3 overtime with an extra skater. Unfortunately, there was no more changes to the scoreline and with HPK unable to trouble the Pelicans goal it meant we were heading for a shootout.
A penalty shootout is never a good way to settle any game in any sport, least of all one which had delivered so much to the travelling Finnish fans and the local Estonian neutrals and it would be a cruel way for Pelicans to lose this one.
Aleksi Mustonen, Jesse Mankinen and Iikka Kangasniemi all missed their shots while HPK saw Oula Palve and Teemu Turunen suffer a similar problem. It would be left to Kristian Vesalainen to win the game in the third round of the shootout and send the HPK fans travelling back to Finland the happier.
Ironically Vesalianen had only scored twice throughout December and January but it will be his name who will be recorded in history to net the game winner.
The Pelican's Jesse Mankinen joked afterwards saying ‘Maybe a smoother ice surface here than we are used to in Lahti was difficult for us to adapt to.’ However, he went on to say ‘I think it's okay (for us). We have a very mobile team, there was room for skating. In the attacking third you have to keep the puck moving, so you can create the targets.’
Despite the result, hockey won out and a largely successful event will be repeated next year when the Pelicans return to the Estonian Capital.
Here is the liiga website report in Finnish:
Liigassa suorasta puolivälieräpaikasta kamppaileva Pelicans ja viime aikoina upeasti pisteitä haalinut HPK iskevät yhteen lauantaina historiallisessa pelissä. Joukkueet nimittäin kohtaavat kautta aikain ensimmäisessä ulkomailla pelattavassa Liiga-mittelössä.
Vaikka Pelicans onkin nyt kolmen ottelun tappioputkessa, on se 13 edellisessä koitoksessa jäänyt tyhjin käsin vain neljästi. Pirteästi pelannut hämeenlinnalaispoppoo sen sijaan on jäänyt tänä vuonna pisteittä ainoastaan kahdesti.
Kumpi löytää balanssin?
Pelicansin kausi on ollut aiempien sesonkien tapaan melkoista vuoristorataa. Vaikka esimerkiksi viime tai tällä kaudella ei ole tullutkaan katastrofaalisen pitkiä tappioputkia, on otteluiden sisällä tai muutamien päivien aikana tapahtunut kummallisia asioita - eli ihan lyhyessä ajassa.
Esimerkiksi viiden viimeisen minuutin aikana 1−4:n 4−4:ään JYPiä vastaan kääntänyt pelikaani antoi tuossa pelissä hurjan taidonnäytteen aggressiivisestä hyökkäämisestä, mutta vastaavasti Jukurien isäntänä se pelasi kauden surkeimman pelin häviten 2−4. Keväällä menestyminen vaatii sen, että otteet tasaantuvat.
Mutta jos on Pelicans ailahdellut, niin samaa voi sanoa HPK:stakin ja etenkin sen maalivahtiosastosta lähiaikoina. Nuorten maailmanmestari Emil Larmi pommitettiin tiistaina KooKoon toimesta vaihtoon, mutta vastaavasti viikko sitten Vaasassa hän oli joukkueensa suurin tuki ja turva voittoon.
Lauantaina on selvä asia, että HPK:n alakerran pitää kestää kovatempoisesti hyökkäävän Pelicansin edessä.
Kerhon vahvuus lienee lahtelaisten tavoin hyökkäämisessä, sillä esimerkiksi joulu-tammikuussa vain kahdessa ottelussa pisteittä jäänyt Kristian Vesalainen ja pistepörssissä kuin varkain jo kahdeksanneksi kivunnut Oula Palve (12+26) ovat iskeneet hurjaa jälkeä.
Koska Pelicansin pelitapa suosii äärimmäisen aggressiivista hyökkäämistä, ja toisaalta HPK:lta löytyy tulikuumia hyökkääjiä, voi lauantaina luvassa olla maalikarkelot. Iso asia pisteiden jaon kannalta on se, kumpi pystyy samaan alakerran tekemisen hyökkäämisen kanssa balanssiin.
Iso kaukalo sopii ainakin Pelicansille [A big rack fits at least for Pelicans]
Lauantainen Tallinnan ottelu on luonnollisesti spesiaali tapahtuma pelaajillekin. Pelicansin Jesse Mankinen valaisi lahtelaisjoukkueen Instagram-tilillä sitä, minkälaisessa kaukalossa pisteistä pelataan kello 19 alkaen.
Vähän ehkä pehmeämpi jää kuin Lahdessa, hyökkääjä sanoi, ja jatkoi isosta kaukalosta:
Uskon, että sopii (meille). Meillä on hyvin liikkuva joukkue, siinä on tilaa luistella. Hyökkäyspäässä pitää pitää kiekkoa ja liikkua, niin saadaan luotua maalipaikkoja.