DUNEDIN, New Zealand – Canterbury Red Devils coach Anatoli Khorozov got the perfect send off. After two years with the Devils, Khorozov is leaving Christchurch and will join the coaching staff of Beibarys Atyrau in Kazakstan's top league.
He had hoped his side would farewell him with a victory in the final of the New Zealand Ice Hockey League against the Dunedin Thunder on 24 August and he got his wish.
The defending champions dominated the game, winning 7-3.
The margin was perhaps flattering for the Thunder, who trailed 6-0 before a late run of goals saw it trim the margin.
"It is always exciting to win something," Khorozov said shortly after his team had received their medals.
In two years with the franchise, Khorozov delivered two titles and walks away with a perfect record and good memories.
"You can't do much more than that."
And neither could the Devils. The team executed the game plan with a rare degree of precision.
The basic blueprint was to pepper the Thunder goal with as many shots as the team could muster.
With the league's number-1 goaltender Matt Canaday in goal for the Thunder, Khorozov emphasised how important it was to follow up each and every shot to look for the rebound.
"The game plan was just to take plenty of shots and skate to the net for the rebounds," he said.
"From day one I told them you are not going to beat Matt Canaday with a straight shot. So basically we knew we needed to beat him by getting to the rebounds. Even the best goalie in the world can't stop all the rebounds."
Khorozov said the turning point came when excellent forward and final's MVP Takumi Ledbetter broke free and scored just before the second-period buzzer. He made it 4-0 when he scored shortly after the resumption with a carbon-copy goal.
"Getting another goal right away after the second period did just give us more confidence. I think the Thunder's hopes stopped after that goal to be honest."
There certainly was no way back for the Thunder. While the team rallied with some late goals, Khorozov was running his fourth line by that stage and the result was beyond doubt.
Thunder coach Janos Kaszala promised his side would be better next year.
The Thunder spent too much time in the penalty box, conceding three in the first period. Some tenacious defence ensured the teams went to the first break with the scores locked 0-0.
But the Thunder spent a lot of energy defending and it cost them dearly later in the game.
Only Canaday kept the score from blowing out with some dazzling saves.
Eventually all that pressure told with Devils defender Stefan Spijkerman scoring early in the second period and fellow defender Terry Watt slamming in another.
Ledbetter's goals either side of the second break confirmed the result.
"I think the key was just everybody playing together and playing as a team," Ledbetter said, swatting away the accolades.
"Our key to the game was just skating hard, taking a lot of shots and out working them.
"Just because the score was plus-4 it does not mean it was easy. It was high intensity the whole game.
"It didn't feel easy. But I guess we had a big cushion, so there was no need to panic at the end."
Kaszala said he could not be too disappointed with his charges.
"In the first and the second period we got too many penalties and the boys tired which cost us the game," he said.
"We had a really, really young team this season and this is the first time ever we made the final. I think we need to be really proud for what we did in the whole season. We had a fantastic season.
"Obviously, Canterbury had more experience but next year we will come back even harder and take the cup."
Most of the crowd in Dunedin hoped for a different outcome in the NZIHL final game between their Thunder team and the Canterbury Red Devils. Photo: James Allan
Thunder captain Andre Robichaud got a late flurry for his side started when he smashed a slap shot past the Devils' goaltender to make it 6-1.
Martin Pokorny scored from a fast break moments later and when Paris Heyd added another, the 1000-strong home crowd sensed something special.
The Thunder went for broke. Canaday skated off the ice but dropping the goalie is always fraught with danger. Chris Eaden made the Thunder pay when he slotted the puck into the vacant goal.
While Ledbetter was named final's MVP, the overall MVP went to Botany Swarm forward Brandon Contratto. He led the league in points with 54.
The league was extremely competitive this season. Of the five teams, four still had an opportunity to make the final with a few weeks remaining.
The Southern Stampede had its hopes extinguished when it was defeated by the Red Devils 5-3 and 3-1 in Christchurch.
The league's inaugural champion is based just a three-hour drive from the Thunder in Queenstown. It is New Zealand's capital of winter sports but it appears to be suffering from being so close to one of the league's newest powerhouses.
The University of Otago is a big draw card, luring promising players to the region from all parts but particularly from Queenstown.
Case in point, Connor Harrison, Aston Brookes and Mitchell Frear moved north to Dunedin this year and Luke Pickering made the move a year earlier. Interestingly, the foursome had collectively played in 11 finals without registering a win. That total now stands at 15.
Perennial power Botany Swarm has won titles but narrowly missed a spot in final after it lost 4-3 to the Devils in its last round-robin match.
The West Auckland Admirals were off the pace this season and finished with just three points. It was thrashed 16-1 and 10-2 by the Thunder in it last two games which perhaps best sums up where that franchise stands. It will need to recruit well in the off-season to be more competitive next winter.