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Denis Malgin prevents a false start in the play-offs against Biel

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Denis Malgin prevents a false start in the play-offs against Biel

The Zurich team won 4-3 at the start of the quarter-final series. The top scorer Denis Malgin decides the game, the veteran Christian Marti detects a new maturity in the ranks of the Lions.

Match winner: Denis Malgin makes the difference in favor of the ZSC Lions with two goals.

Ennio Leanza / Keystone

Anyone who has listened to EHC Biel over the last week has noticed a hint of optimism before the start of this play-off quarter-final series against the ZSC Lions. The plan was to somehow win game one and spread the poison of nervousness among the people of Zurich. Then Biel would have a chance to advance to the semi-finals as an outsider. Because there are doubts about how well the ZSC can deal with setbacks. That’s what happens when a team practically celebrated a start-to-finish victory in qualifying and didn’t have to go through a serious crisis.

A defeat at the start might have conjured up the ghosts of the past: a year ago, the proud Zurich team had little or nothing to oppose EHC Biel in the play-off semi-finals, and the Lions didn’t win a single game. And it wouldn’t have taken much for the first step of the bold Biel project to have been successful.

After 44 minutes on Saturday, Luca Cunti, who once grew up at ZSC, gave the Zealanders a 3-2 lead. The tension in Zurich’s Swiss Life Arena was palpable, ZSC coach Marc Crawford was annoyed by unpunished Biel fouls. There was disbelief in the stands.

But 2024 is not 2023, the differences are enormous. Biel is no longer an up-and-coming underdog who ruffles opponents with attractive, fast-paced hockey and whose players release additional strength to dedicate a farewell title to coach Antti Törmänen. But a physically and mentally weak team that fell to 9th place, had to struggle with the aftermath of the completely unsuccessful era of coach Petri Matikainen and only reached the quarter-finals after the arduous walk into the play-in.

ZSC talents have to go to the GCK Lions farm team – and that ensures that conflicts in the Swiss League break out openly

In contrast, there is a ZSC that can no longer be shaken so easily. It is massively better staffed than last year, the squad is so broad that the Zurich team can afford to use two designated future national players for the GCK Lions, Nicolas Baechler and Joel Henry. The farm team qualified for the play-off final in the second highest league on Friday for the first time since 1997 – and ensured that the long-simmering conflicts about the future of the Swiss League broke out openly. According to its chairman Marc Thommen, the semi-final loser Olten is considering withdrawing to amateur hockey due to a lack of financial prospects. SC Langenthal had already given up in 2023, as did Martigny a few days ago. A farewell to Olten would be a fiasco for the already struggling lower house.

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Henry was recently the match winner at the GCK Lions with three goals, but there is still no place for him in the ZSC. Which says a lot about the quality in the Zurich ranks. National team defender Christian Marti, who has experienced a lot in eight seasons at ZSC, says it this way: “I don’t want to offend anyone, but our current foreigners are doing their job. You can only win in the play-offs if your best players are actually your best players. That is the case with us. And: Denis helps.”

Denis, this is Denis Malgin, the artist and first-line center who returned from overseas in the summer. “Unleash the Lion” is the ZSC’s play-off motto. On Saturday evening, Malgin was primarily unleashed. It was he who decided the game with two goals within 138 seconds. In the 48th minute he scored to make it 4:3. This result remained.

Last year Malgin was sorely missed as a thinker, director and leader. Now he has proven his worth again, he is the best, most complete Swiss striker in the league. Christian Marti says about Malgin: “When it counts, he’s there. His line makes the difference offensively. And that is no coincidence. It’s not like he just makes a living off his talent. Some might think: Yes, he has Russian blood, so you can do magic on your own. But this is wrong. He works damn hard. And that pays off.”

Biel didn’t find an answer to Malgin – and it will probably mourn this missed opportunity for a while. Anyone who scores three goals in a play-off game in Zurich against the best defense and the most reliable goalkeeper in the league, Simon Hrubec, has to win the match if they want to have serious hopes of progressing. Because that shouldn’t happen too often anymore, the ZSC plays too calmly for that.

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The league didn’t do Biel any favors with the game plan – the start of the series could have been scheduled later

Christian Marti says of the Zurich bull market: “It helped us that we won often throughout the winter. This strengthens self-confidence. And it helps that you don’t lose your head if you fall behind. I think we’ve matured as a team.” Then he adds: “Biel is a strong, unpleasant opponent. They always manage to stretch the game apart, which is not easy to defend. But we are well prepared for it. And we play with this feeling in our stomach that we want to return the favor. We haven’t forgotten what happened last year.”

The question for the continuation of this series is whether Biel has the energy to react again. The game last Saturday was the fifth game within ten days, while the ZSC was able to rest for almost two weeks. The league did the play-in winner no favors with the schedule – the start of this quarter-final series could have been scheduled a day later. These are considerations that the ZSC cannot care about. He has passed his first endurance test. On the way to the tenth title in the club’s history, it won’t be the last.

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