When Ryan Lasch signed with the Frölunda Indians last year, the well-traveled American brought with him a reputation as a gritty, hard-working winger who knew how to win hockey games. It was exactly what the Indians needed.
Lasch scored once and put in a workhorse defensive performance as he led Frölunda to a 2-1 win over Oulu Kärpät of Finland February 9 to claim the 2015-2016 European Champions Hockey League title. Lasch was the MVP of the tournament, racking up a CHL-leading 16 points (seven goals, nine assists) in eight games.
"It’s awesome — a great feeling to win with these guys," he said. "We’ve worked together all season, scored some big goals . . . this game we scored a couple and defended. Everyone was really focused and we all wanted it, you could tell from the opening faceoff. Everyone put in a maximum effort and this is the result."
The European crown was the biggest success in the 29-year-old Lasch's career. A native of Orange County, California, Lasch bounced from juniors to college to Sweden and Finland before signing with the Anaheim Ducks in 2012. He was the first Orange County native to sign with the hometown team, but his success on the big ice in Europe never translated to the NHL. The Ducks assigned him to Norfolk in the AHL in 2013 before sending him down to the Fort Wayne Komets of the ECHL. Rather than stay in the minors, Lasch returned to Sweden, signing with Växjö. He moved to Frölunda during the off-season.
Since he arrived in Göteborg, Lasch has helped Frölunda return to the top of the standings of the Swedish Hockey League and is the current leading scorer in the SHL. He was the difference in the Champions League final as he scored once and was a plus-2 for the game as the Indians overcame Kärpät on its home ice at Oulun Energia Arena.
"It was a tight game from start to finish," said Frölunda defenseman Oscar Lauridsen. "Two highly competitive teams who came out and battled with everything they had."
Normally an offensive-minded club, Frölunda put on a defensive show against the Finns. The Chiefs killed all four penalties it gave up and held Oulu to just 19 shots in the game. The Finns were just as tough as Kärpät goaltender Sami Aittokallio stopped 21 of 23 shots he faced. The two he couldn’t stop came at the end of the first period as the Indians scored twice in an 83-second span.
"I think we started fairly well, despite the negative result," said Kärpät coach Lauri Majamaki. "We played well. We did what we wanted. We forced a lot of turnovers in the offensive zone but couldn’t capitalize on those."
Lasch put Frölunda on the board at 16:20 of the opening period when he tipped an Oscar Fantenberg shot past Aittokallio for a 1-0 lead. Spencer Abbott then doubled the lead at 17:43 when he tried to dig the puck out from under the Kärpät netminder, only for it to deflect off a defenseman in the crease to make it 2–0.
"That was something we talked about before the game, getting guys in front of the net, creating some traffic, and getting shots through," said Lasch, who took home the CHL's Cramo Top Scorer Award and NordicBet MVP Trophy in addition to the gold medal. "We knew it would be a tough game and we'd have to win those inside battles. That's what I was trying to do on that first one there, Fanty got the shot through and I got a piece of it."
Kärpät went on an early power play at the beginning of the middle session but were again unable to generate much offense. As the period developed, Ivan Huml had a great chance for the home side but found Lars Johansson in no mood to be beaten in the Frölunda net. The visitors had the better of the final minutes of the period, but it ended goalless and Kärpät having it all to do in the third.
"We talked about it before the game — we knew we were playing a good team and we'd have to keep their chances to a minimum," said Johansson, who stopped 18 of 19 Karat shots. "Thanks to these guys, it was not that tough a game for me, but still it feels great."
Again the Finns got an early man advantage as the third period began, but again Frölunda held out. It was only on the home side's fourth power play of the game when they finally found a breakthrough — as the penalty to Anton Axelsson ticked off, Juho Keränen's pass deflected off the stick and found a way through Johansson to half the deficit with 12:49 to play.
"These are games of small margins," said Frölunda’s Artturi Lehkonen. "We got a lucky bounce in Abbott’s goal and they had one in Keränen’s goal. It takes some luck and tremendous amount of work to get to the crease. You don’t get easy goals in these games."
Kärpät tried to tie the game for the rest of the period, but a combination of resolute defending and Johansson kept them at bay.
"I'm really proud of my team now. It was a tough game, we played well defensively, and kept the lead until the end," said Frölunda coach Roger Ronnberg. "I told the guys to stay calm, play with the puck, and not be too passive. I'm really happy, it would have been hard to lose a second final!"
Frölunda lost in the final last year to SHL club Luleå. Lasch said even though he was not part of that team, the Indians had a goal of gaining CHL revenge.
"It’s part of what we’ve been working for all season," he said. "Right from the start one of our goals as an organization was to be playing in this game and win it."
Lasch was just as happy about winning both the scoring title and the CHL Tournament MVP award.
"It's nice. I thank the fans who voted and everyone who supported that. Winning that is a reflection of the team — this was a team victory," he said. "You know, individual awards are nice but this is what it’s all about. When those final seconds tick off the clock and the team pours off the bench to celebrate, that’s the best part of being a hockey player."
Frölunda is currently second in the SHL, seven points behind Skelleftea. Lasch said the CHL win could provide a boost as the Indians make a last push to claim the top seed in the SHL playoffs.
"This is going to give us confidence going forward, not just winning but the way we won — a battle like that — those are the types of games that you have to be able to win," he said. "I think that's going to help us in the future."