Saturday I went to watch Game1 of the Finals here in Milano. The local team, Hockey Club Vipers Milano, hosted Cortina, and in the building the atmosphere was really amazing. Too bad the biggest arena in Milano (The Forum, which capicity is about 13,000) is not available in these days, because it would have been even better. About 4,500 fans attended the game and it was a great show. Milano and Cortina finished respectively 1st and 2nd in the standings in the regular season and they had little difficulties to go through the semifinals. Milano swept Bolzano (Belanger's team...also Deron Quint, Peter Schaefer and James Black played for Bolzano), while Cortina lost the first game against Asiago (who had Quintal, Dandenault, Fata and Pisani), then never looked back en route to a 4-1 series win. On paper, Milano is the favourite to win the title. They have 3 NHLers: Craig Adams (Carolina), Rob DiMaio (Dallas) and Niklas Sundstrom (Montreal). The Vipers top line is DiMaio-Tkaczuk (former Flames 1st round pick)-Sundstrom, and it's a line which makes a lot of damage. There are only 4-5 italian born players on the team, and one of them (Armin Helfer, a 25 years old dman) is arguably the best italian player. IMO he could also be drafted in the near future, he has all the tools to try to make the jump to NA. The rest of the team is made of canadian, swedish, finnish and american players. FYI, Milano played against Dynamo Moscow (the top russian team) last January and lost "just" 5-3, so it's a pretty good team here in Europe. On the other hand, Cortina has just 1 NHLer, former Ducks forward Matt Cullen. Cullen is having a hell of a season, he's not here on vacation (as Belanger said when interviewed), he's here to play. His attitude is amazing, he plays 40 minutes a game and he's a joy to watch. Maybe the larger ice surface suits more his style of play, he's such a great player. He has a TON of heart and his teammates adore him. He's hands off the league's MVP this season and the biggest reason why Cortina reached the final for the first time in the last 30 years. Cortina's roster is filled with Swedish players and a couple of pretty good Slovak DMen; their goalie, canadian Francois Gravel, is perphaps the best goalie nowadays in Italy.
The game was very entertaining and after a scoreless 1st period, the Vipers struck first with DiMaio, who hit the bull's eye with a wrister from the slot (assisted by Sundstrom). Cortina reacted immediately and after a few chances they tied the game at 1 when Pettersson put home a rebound off the post. Both teams played a very exciting 2nd period, but the goalies, who both had excellent outings, stopped all the shots they faced. The same happened in the 3rd period and in the 10 minutes OT (played 4 on 4). So the game had to be decided at the shootout...and after 16th tries, Ryan Savoia gave Milano the win, deking Gravel and putting the puck into the empty net. The Arena exploded and all the Vipers jumped on the ice to celebrate the victory. I don't like to see a game like this ending with a shootout, it's too cruel for the team which looses, also because Cortina played a hell of game. Game 2 will be played tomorrow in Cortina, while for game3 the series will shift back to Milano, next Thursday (the series is best of 7).