Neman repeats in Belarus

Extraliga honours remain in Grodno

11.04.2018
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The Neman Grodno players celebrate with the trophy after defending the Belarusian championship against Yunost Minsk. Photo: BIHA

Neman Grodno successfully defended its Belarusian Extraliga title, overcoming Yunost Minsk 4-2 in the grand final.

The victory, a repeat of last season’s triumph, moves Neman onto seven President’s Cup wins and puts the Grodno club level with Yunost on the all-time leader board.

This season’s clash of the Belarusian titans proved more competitive than last year, when Neman swept Yunost to end a three-year wait for the big prize. The Minsk team was more competitive throughout the series, producing a 2-0 win in Grodno on Wednesday to deny Neman victory on home ice. Friday’s decisive game was another hard-fought battle. Yunost twice led as it looked to save the series, but goals from Artyom Levsha and Eduard Grin late in the second period turned the game around and handed Neman the big prize.

But Neman’s head coach, Sergei Pushkov, insisted he was never worried, even after his team allowed two goals in the first eight minutes.

“The first goal was our goalie’s only mistake – he just didn’t see who was coming towards him,” the coach told his club’s official website. “The second goal was also a bit freakish. It came from a bad bounce off the boards at a time when we were looking to launch an attack. That turned the play around 180 degrees. Ultimately, both goals were down to us, but I could see that our character and desire were all there. That’s why I think we deserved the victory.”

The game went through a second swift U-turn in that second period as Neman scored twice in 38 seconds to wrest control. Levsha had already posted a highlight-reel goal to cancel out Yunost’s opener, and the 25-year-old signing from Shakhtyor Soligorsk struck again on the power play to make it 2-2. Then came Grin’s winner, justifying the decision to sign the forward from Dynamo Molodechno in the closing stages of the season.

Although the goals in Friday’s decider came from new faces at the club, coach Pushkov was keen to highlight the importance of continuity from last season to this. “It turns out that our new signings proved themselves,” he added. “But I’m really happy that the two championship seasons have been achieved by more or less the same players. We parted company with a few, who were not able to fit into our game plan, but I will not say a word against those guys – they worked honestly for us last season. And we can see that everything worked out. We know it’s much easier to win a title than to defend it, but our team had a good season from the start of the Champions League in August through to our victory today.”

Domestic success in Belarus means another shot at the Champions Hockey League next season, and Pushkov hopes his team will be able to improve on last season’s debut.

“Last year we really enjoyed playing in that tournament, and we gained valuable experience,” he said. “We looked decent at that level but came up just a little short: in particular, we struggled with penalty shots. But we kept working on it and you saw how [Artyom] Kisly put that right in the final series.”

In the Champions Hockey League they will be joined by Yunost Minsk, which qualifies as the IIHF Continental Cup winner.

Yunost head coach Mikhail Zakharov was typically blunt in his assessment of what went wrong for his team. “The strongest won,” he said. “Unfortunately, too many of our players didn’t realize that this was a playoff.”

While Zakharov picked out individual errors as the root of his team’s downfall in the final game of the series, he also acknowledged that the club had been playing catch-up all season after a difficult summer.

“Only 10 of our players had a normal pre-season,” he complained. “Physically, we weren’t ready. At Neman, almost everyone had a proper preparation, apart from a couple of newcomers. With us, at every pre-season camp it felt like people arrived with niggles or needed to shed some weight.”

ANDY POTTS

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