GRODNO, Belarus – Facing the reigning champions, top seed and the lone unbeaten team in the playoffs, Neman Grodno knew it had a mountain to climb playing the Belarus Open League final against Metallurg Zhlobin. But four wins in four games made thing look easy for Neman which celebrated its 5th overall title and first since 2001.
The 2013 edition of the playoff final was a copy of last year with the same two teams playing for gold. The outcome was completely the opposite though. Whereas Zhlobin won their first ever league title in six games in 2012, they were swept by a very composed Neman Grodno squad this time around.
“We had some luck on our hands but overall we deserved to win this series,” Neman veteran forward Vyacheslav Lisichkin said afterwards. “We had to wait 12 years so it was about time we won again. Today is a day of joy and smiles, just look at the fans. That’s what we do it for. The last two years we were close but lacked that bit of luck.”
The forward was already a member of the team that won the title back in 2001 and compared that win to this year’s championship.
“This one is more emotional to me. Nowadays it’s much more difficult to win the championship than it was 12 years ago,” reveals the 32 year old. “Despite winning in four straight games, Zhlobin’s opposition was really strong.”
Although Metallurg Zhlobin had dominated the regular season, Neman Grodno was not too sorry to have the reigning champions as opponents. Among the few teams in the 11-team league, Grodno seemed to have the number of Metallurg and won four out of the six head-to-head contests.
This trend continued in the final. After a 3-2 victory in game 1, Neman Grodno was in control of the series after Jaroslav Kristek’s overtime winning goal clinched a narrow 2-1 victory to give his team a 2-0 seried lead with the next two games to be played at home.
Metallurg Zhlobin did come out flying in game 3 realizing they would have to put up a fight in order to retain their title. But despite outshooting their opponents for the third straight game, Neman Grodno’s goaltender Igor Brikun did not blink and turned away all 27 shots he faced en route to a 2-0 victory and a chance to complete the sweep in game 4.
Two lucky bounces set the tone for Neman in front of a sold out 3,400 crowd in Grodno. After 12 minutes of play Estonian forward Andrei Makrov saw his backhand pass deflected in the net by Pavel Dashov leaving goaltender Dmitri Milchakov helpless and flat on his belly for the opening score.
Seven minutes later, close before the end of the first period, Andrei Korshunov unleashed a slapshot from the point that came off Milchakov and on the stick of Slovak Peter Fabus. The puck bounced high up in the air and fell down exactly between the bar and the goaltender’s catching glove to double the lead for Grodno.
Zhlobin started playing an all-or-nothing type of game in the remaining two periods which opened up the high tempo game and saw both teams create a string of chances. Andrei Spiridonov released one-time slapshot to make it a one goal game but the six remaining minutes were not enough for Zhlobin despite some frantic moments in front of Brikun’s net.
As the clock winded the down, the ice was filled with red and white jerseys as well as scarves and other fan memorabilia in celebration of the home team’s triumph.
“I think the will to win was bigger within our team,” claimed Grodno defenceman Ivan Usenko. “We haven’t won something for a long time and everyone on the team wanted to have the drought to end.”
The glory days of Neman Grodno date back to the late 90’s, early 00’s in which the team won three championships in four years' time. Since then the team has hit a dry spell which lasted 12 long years. After that the team was suffering from financial constraints which saw their domestic dominance come to an end.
Lisichkin: “We have had some really difficult years but since the arrival of head coach Dmitry Kravchenko and Semyon Shapiro we’re really on the up again.”
For Metallurg Zhlobin, finishing as runner-up was sour after they already finished in second placed in the Belarus Cup and the IIHF Continental Cup earlier this season.