The Ritten Sport players celebrate after winning the Italian “Scudetto”. Photo: Max Pattis
Ritten Sport wins second Serie A title
Ritten Sport was pegged to be the Italian Serie A title favourites and they did not disappoint.
The team was dominant in the regular season and as successful in the playoffs. Two third-period goals of Brendan Cook made the difference in Game 6 against Pustertal Bruneck.
The victory means the title is back in with the “Rittner Buam”. The team won its first ever Serie A championship in 2014 but saw Asiago Hockey dethrone them last year. During the off-season that followed, Ritten vowed it will be back stronger than ever and it proved. With 34 victories in 42 regular season games the team secured being the top seed and also reached the 100-point mark as the only team in the league.
Whereas the Italian media were predicting a single-sided final series, Ritten was given fierce opposition from the Wolves of Pustertal Bruneck . After four games, the series was tied at two. Ironically all games were won by the away teams. These games were also anything but one-sided which was underlined by the fact that game one required a shootout to decide on the outcome and game three and four went to overtime.
In the end the series was decided by the abundance quality and depth of the Ritten squad. Game five was the first game in which a home team could skate off the ice with a victory, 6-2, but even that loss did not demoralize Pustertal. The Wolves were the better team in game six and outshot Ritten 49-29. But as was the case in the majority of the series, Ritten goaltender Andrew Engelage was standing on his head and the forwards of the new champions were deadly effective.
“They were a pesky opponent and they deserve a lot of respect and credit for the way they played,” Ritten veteran captain Christian Borgatello said about Pustertal. “I think however that we showed to be stronger in the decisive moments, for example in game five and six.”
The 34-year old defenceman showed no signs of rust yet, notching a pair of goals and 17 assists in the playoffs with which he became the team’s playoff MVP. The long-time national team stalwart now has now won the “Scudetto” six times in his career but is not taking success for granted.
“It is a special feeling to dominate both the regular season and playoffs. You don’t get to experience that too often,” Borgatello said. “When I have to rank this title it will be high up on my list, only trailing by my championship title with Bolzano in 2008.”
This year’s Serie A only counted eight teams, a serious step down from the 12 teams the year before. With the country’s best team HC Bolzano already having left to play in the Austrian-based EBEL, Italian ice hockey was suffering from a declining interest.
Immediately from the start of the season, Ritten Sport and Pustertal Bruneck proved to be the teams to beat in the league this season. And not many teams managed to do so.
The two-horse race meant the 42-game regular season played out predictably and it was stripped off excitement leaving the fans already waiting for the playoffs to start before Christmas. Ritten Sport (100 points) and Pustertal Bruneck (91) finished way above the rest of the pack. The “mere” 68 points that third placed Asiago Hockey mustered tells the whole story about this Serie A season.
Not a lot changed during the post-season. En route the final, Ritten went undefeated against Cortina and the Vipiteno Broncos whereas Pustertal Bruneck only lost once against Gherdeina in the quarter-finals before sweeping Asiago in the semis.
“I truly hope we won’t see a repeat of this season next year around,” Pustertal Bruneck team president Andreas Mariner commented afterwards. “Although the final series brought excitement and close games, the rest of the season did not have any of that.”
The way the final series played out was solid promotion for ice hockey in Italy though. The level displayed showed there is certainly potential available in Italy and the fans were treated to a thrilling final series.
“It was a fantastic final with great fan support from both teams,” admitted Ritten president Thomas Rottensteiner. “I am sure everyone enjoyed this one.”
Also Pustertal captain Armin Helfer felt that the series was a joy to watch. “Of course we are disappointed to have lost but we have given our best and in the end Ritten was a little bit better and more efficient in front of net. I am delighted though that we have been able to offer exciting hockey for the fans this series.”
The grapes are sour for Helfer though. It is the fourth time since 2011 that he and his team mates have had to settle for silver losing out in the Serie A playoff final.
Perhaps the spell ends next year. Ritten Sport has hinted on following Bolzano’s example and is eager to leave the Serie A to become the second Italian team in the EBEL.
Rottensteiner is not afraid to show his ambitions. “For next season I want to quickly confirm all four import spots and I’m also confident that we can keep the core of our Italian players that captured this year’s title.”
When the reigning champions would leave the Serie A, the league would once again be forced to come up with a model that puts the balance back in the works. One possible scenario that has been surfacing in the media is a merger with the Austrian second tier league (INL).
The Serie A final might have saved the season but the offseason will still provide for plenty of challenges to restore parity.