It took two Americans to lead Frölunda Hockey to its second-straight Champions League title.
California native Casey Wellman scored twice and Oklahoma native Matt Donovan had two assists as the Indians beat Czech club Sparta Prague 4-3 in overtime February 7 at the Frölundaborgs Isstadion in Göteborg. Frölunda has played in all three Champions League finals, losing the inaugural gold-medal match to Lulea in 2015 and knocked off Karpat Oulu of Finland last year to win its first European title.
Donovan set up Niklas Lasu at 1:27 of overtime the game-winning goal. With the teams skating 3-on-3, Donovan sprang Mats Roseli-Olsen along the boards as the Indians quickly worked the puck into the Prague end. Olsen played a give-and-go with Lasu, who rifled the puck past Prague goaltender Thomas Papperle for the victory.
“Of course it's awesome to stand here and have this win and to be a part of it,” Lasu said. “My first thought was to give the puck to Rosseli as fast as I could. We wanted to use his speed, and I just tried to find an open spot and luckily I found one. I got this feeling, like it was going in – before it even went in – so it's nice.”
Oklahoma native takess to the Swedish ice
Donovan, an Oklahoma City native, became the first player born, raised and trained solely in Oklahoma to play in the NHL when he made his debut April 3, 2012 as a blue liner for the New York Islanders. He spent parts of four seasons bouncing between the NHL and the AHL where he played for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers and the Rochester Americans. He signed as a free agent with Frölunda at the start of the 2016 season.
Wellman, who grew up in Brentwood, Calif., also bounced between the NHL and AHL for several seasons before heading to Europe. He played 54 games for the Minnesota Wild and Washington Capitals, scoring 6 goals and 10 assists. He racked up 96 goals and 131 assists in 300 games in the AHL with Hershey, Houston, San Antonio and Hartford. He had 8 goals and 8 assists in 40 games last season for Spartak Moscow.
The game against Sparta Prague
Against Sparta Prague. Frölunda looked somewhat lethargic in the opening minutes as the Czechs swarmed the Indians’ zone, putting early pressure on goalie Johan Gustafsson. Prague took the lead just 2:30 in the opening session as Lukas Cingel one-timed a rebound from the slot to open the scoring.
Prague tried to play a physical brand of hockey to negate the Indians’ speed, but it quickly backfired. Brian Ihnacak took the game's first penalty for interference at 7:34 and it took Frölunda just 12 seconds of power play time to equalize – Johan Sundström with the initial shot and Wellman in the right spot to get the rebound and score his seventh goal of this CHL season.
Less than two minutes later, Miroslav Forman, one of the Prague’s top performers in the CHL received a major penalty and a game misconduct for slashing after his stick caught Patrik Carlsson in the neck, injuring the Frölunda forward. At first the penalty inspired the Czechs, who retook the lead as Jaroslav Hlinka fed Petr Vrana on a 2-on-1, and Vrana made no mistake in putting a low shot past Gustafsson for a short-handed goal. Frolunda finally capitalized late in the five-minute advantage as captain Joel Lundqvist tipped Henrik Tommernes's shot past Popperle to even the score once more.
Frölunda took control in the second period, trapping Prague in its own end for much of the time. The Indians outshot the Czechs 16-4 in the period but only managed one goal and once more it was Wellman who was in the right place at the right time. The former Washington Capital drove to the net just as Petr Vrana was called for a hook and on the delayed penalty, Donovan was able to feed Wellman, who fired the puck past Popperle for a 3-2 lead before crashing into the Prague net minder.
Prague stormed back in the third period, outshooting the Indians 16-3. The Czechs tied the game at 13:45 of the third thanks to a power-play goal. With Lundqvist in the box for slashing, Lukas Klimek tied the game, tipping a shot from Jan Svrcek past Gustafsson. The Frolunda goaltender, however, proved unbeatable in the final minutes, diving across his crease several occasions and made a great glove save to force overtime.
“Sparta is without doubt one of the most skilled and competent team we’ve faced this year and they really forced us to play our best,” said Gustafsson. “When they came at us in the third, the guys in front of me fought so hard to help me out, and they blocked an incredible amount of shot attempts, so I owe them a lot!”
“I'm so proud,” said smiling Frölunda coach Roger Rönnberg. “We had a really tough game and we played a really tough team. I'm really impressed with Sparta. I must say, they were a really tough team to beat.”