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Eye On Europe: Sky's the limit for SKA

Alexei Yashin, shown here after last year's outdoor game in Red Square, has been on fire in the KHL this season. (Photo by Dima Korotayev/Epsilon/Getty Images)

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Alexei Yashin, shown here after last year's outdoor game in Red Square, has been on fire in the KHL this season. (Photo by Dima Korotayev/Epsilon/Getty Images)

St. Petersburg SKA is on top of the Western Conference in the Kontinental League with 39 points in 17 games, second in the league. Alexei Yashin leads the way on offense – 20 points in 17 games – and goalie Robert Esche is taking care of the back end of the business. The team’s 28 goals against are tied for the lowest in the league and Esche ranks third among goaltenders with a .930 save percentage and a 1.73 GAA in 12 games.

Esche’s backup, Maksim Sokolov, has notched four wins in his five starts.

“Max has played terrific hockey as well,” Esche told THN.com on the phone from Moscow. “He has two shutouts and two one-goal games. (Coach) Barry (Smith) has been fair to us and sometimes we rotate games.”

Last season, SKA was ousted from the playoffs in the first round, but early this season, things look good.

“Our power play is really good, and we’ve added so much scoring to our team while still keeping the goals against down,” Esche said. “And if you can’t do one of them you can’t win.”

Esche is in his third season in Russia, having spent 2007-08 with Ak Bars Kazan. He says he’s a better goalie now than when he left the NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers.

“The biggest thing for me has been learning to read plays,” he said. “When I left the NHL I couldn’t read plays that well. Over here, I didn’t have a choice, because they like to pass the puck. They move it around so well and don’t always shoot, whereas in the NHL everything was always so quick, the players got the puck and they’d shoot it.

“If a good play happened, I was a fish out of the water. Here, it was just survival. I didn’t have a choice so I had to get better at reading plays. Here it’s all plays, looking for that one-timer into an empty net with the goalie somewhere else.”

And that’s just the practices.

“We do a lot of 3-on-0’s, 2-on-0’s where the goalie is just defending himself from looking like an idiot,” Esche said. “And like with anything you do, if you do it enough you get good at it. I’ve been able to put that into my game.”

In May, Esche played at the World Championship with Team USA under coach Ron Wilson and the goaltender hopes to reunite with Wilson at the Vancouver Olympics in February.

“That’s a goal of mine this year,” Esche said. “I wasn’t invited to the orientation camp, but my last few seasons have been really good and I’ve managed to stay healthy, which wasn’t in the cards for me in the NHL.

“We did well at the worlds, had an offensive team and scored a lot. We ended up losing to Russia 3-2 in the semifinal and that could have gone either way. I hope they take a look at me, but if they don’t, then I’ll move on.”

THE CHAMPS ARE BACK?
The International Ice Hockey Federation announced this week it had reached an agreement with the six top European leagues to bring back the Champions League (CHL) in the fall of 2010.

As compensation, last season’s champions will also get a chance to qualify for the CHL next season.

The CHL was shut down after just one season, when the financiers pulled out of the project unexpectedly.

The IIHF has also published the tender documents for potential investors that are expected to – this time – guarantee the six million dollar euro prize money, as well as the costs for running the league.

The NHL confirmed its interest in investing in the CHL last spring, but the deal never materialized. The deadline for the bids is Nov. 13.

Related Links

The CHL is a tournament played alongside the domestic leagues. The Zurich Lions beat Metallurg Magnitogorsk in the inaugural final in January, 2009.

THE JOKE’S ON THEM
Helsinki’s Jokerit has been one of the prominent clubs in the Finnish SM-liiga since the early 1990s when a young Teemu Selanne led the team to promotion into the top division and then to a championship. Since 1992, Jokerit has won the Kanada Bowl, the top trophy in Finnish hockey, five times, finished runner-up four times, and took third place once.

But it’s been an eight-year wait for another championship parade - a long one for a club that is considered one of the giants in the league and plays in the best arena in the country.

This season, the team signed three former Team Finland players. Defenseman Antti-Jussi Niemi and forwards Esa Pirnes and Jukka Hentunen all returned to Finland from the KHL. And with the signing of coach Hannu Aravirta, who helmed Jokerit to championships in 1994 and 1996, the team was considered to be a Kanada Bowl contender once again.

But at the 14-game mark, Jokerit finds itself dead last in the standings, with just 11 points. They have only two regulation wins, the last one coming Sept. 26, in a game against Ilves.

To change the course, Jokerit abandoned its strategy to have an all-Finnish roster and signed Swedish forward Fredrik Bremberg, who won the Swedish league scoring title in 2007 and has been a free agent since being released from KHL club Atlant Mystishi early in the season. Bremberg signed a contract on a game-to-game basis, as he’s looking to return to the KHL.

He collected an assist in his first game with Jokerit, a 4-3 loss against Kärpät.

HANLON GETS THE BOOT
The KHL’s Dinamo Minsk fired coach Glen Hanlon and the rest of his staff Oct. 20 after the team won just seven of its first 16 games. Hanlon will keep his job as the coach of Team Belarus, the Belarusian federation said.

ALL IN THE FAMILY
On Jan. 27, 1965, the Rangers’ Ulf Sterner became the first European-trained player to play in the NHL when he took the ice in a game against the Bruins.

Upon returning to Sweden, he played five seasons with Farjestad BK and the club has retired his No. 9 to the rafters of the Löfbergs Lila Arena, next to the sweaters of current team CEO Hakan Loob (No. 5), coach Tommy Samuelsson (No. 2) and GM Thomas Rundqvist (also No. 9).

On Oct. 17, 2009, Robin Sterner, Ulf’s grandson, played his first Swedish Elitserien game, scoring on his first shift against Brynas.

Sterner plays regularly for Farjestad’s farm team, Skare, in Sweden’s  Div. 1, two tiers below the Elitserien. He has scored seven points in nine games and is tied with Adam Rundqvist (son of Thomas) and is one point ahead of Niclas Loob (son of Hakan).

Eye on Europe will be featured on THN.com every Friday throughout the season. Risto Pakarinen is a Finnish freelance writer, based in Stockholm, Sweden who also writes for NHL.com and IIHF.com. When not writing about European hockey on THN, he's probably writing about hockey at ristopakarinen.com/hockey as Puckarinen. 

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