In the three years of its existence the BeNeLiga has seen three different champions. This season HIJS The Hague added its name to the cup, defeating archrivals Flyers Heerenveen in a best-of-five-series, 3-1.
It was no surprise both Dutch powerhouses met in the BeNeLiga finals. The teams had faced each other in the Dutch Cup and Dutch league final earlier this season and similar to those outings, HIJS made the difference with some timely scoring.
Two late second period goals, 20 seconds apart broke the deadlock in a tight scoreless game 4 of the series. First Raymond van der Schuit released a slapshot that whistled behind Heerenveen goaltender Sjoerd Idenzga. With the Heerenveen players still puzzling what went wrong on the goal, it was The Hague-born forward Alan van Bentem who reacted quickest on a loose puck to double the lead to 2-0.
The Frisian team was left with no choice than to play catch-up hockey in the final period if they wanted to extend the season and when Adam Bezak pounced on a 5-on-3 power play situation, the 3,000-capacity home crowd was on their feet routing for the equalizer.
Once again, HIJS scored when it mattered most. Within 90 seconds, Slovak forward Oliver Pataky converted on a power play to kill the momentum and restore the two goal lead. Heerenveen’s resistance was broken. Van Bentem scored his second of the game before Jeffrey Melissant scored an empty netter for a 5-1 final result.
The 2017/18 BeNeLiga final series was an entertaining one for the crowd. Two teams that draw the most spectators on average entangled themselves in a close series that could have gone either way.
In game 1, Heerenveen twice managed to erase a deficit before Alan van Bentem scored an early third period goal which was followed by an empty net goal that gave The Hague the series lead.
An empty net goal also decided game 2. This time it was Brent Janssen of the Flyers Heerenveen, who scored with 27 seconds left to play to make it 3-1 and tied the series.
The all-important third game was a nail-biter which was eventually concluded after penalty shots.
Heerenveen thought they would walk away with a vital away win. Leading 1-0 with less than five minutes to play, Yan Turcotte was given a double minor for roughing and with the clock winding down, Joey Oosterveld equalized with a well-placed shot.
After both teams had scored on two penalty shots, it was Oliver Pataky, who scored for The Hague giving goaltender Fabian Schotel the opportunity to become player of the game. The The Hague goaltender, who has been in excellent form this season, stopped Ronald Wurm’s penalty shot to earn his team the victory.
It was a loss Heerenveen would not overcome. One year after capturing the BeNeLiga title themselves, they had to witness the HIJS The Hague taking over the reigns in Dutch hockey.
“Before the season many people claimed Heerenveen was the best team in the league,” said HIJS captain Alan van Bentem. “We have won 7 out of 8 games against them this year, so I think it’s fair to claim that we were better this year.”
Heerenveen Flyers coach Mike Nason highlighted the importance of the penalty shot loss. “We were leading with three minutes left to play and are then conceding an unnecessary penalty which led to the equalizing goal and the shootouts of which I’m not a fan of at all.”
The coach realized it was tough to get his team mentally prepared for Game 4 a couple days later. “We did say to forget and start over but this loss was hard to swallow for all of us. It was the turning point of a very close series.”
Earlier this season The Hague laid their hands on the two other domestic trophies that were up for grabs in the Netherlands. Early February the team’s four power-play goals were key in a lopsided 7-3 victory over Heerenveen whereas a couple weeks later, the Dutch Championships was also won thanks to a special team goal. Veteran Marco Bommezijn’s goal after 44 minutes separated The Hague from Heerenveen Flyers.
Having completed the triple, a remarkable season comes to an end for HIJS. The team is back on the Dutch hockey throne after five-years of drought. But circumstances have changed since the last time the team hoisted the cup. In 2013, the team relied on strong financial sponsorship and could ice a number of high-calibre players. When the sponsorship came to an abrupt end, it had to basically start from scratch. HIJS was left with only a few players that remained with the team and added players from the second team.
Although the quality on the ice might have dropped a notch, the team spirit is sky high. No less than 17 out of 23 players have their roots in or near The Hague and have represented the team since an early age which benefits the chemistry the team has shown on and off the ice.
Also the fans appreciated seeing the local heroes on the ice every week. Its average of nearly 2,000 fans per game tops the league and during the final playoff game, 500 hundred fans made the trip up north to Heerenveen.
“This is super, we have worked hard to achieve this goal for the last three years,” said a jubilant Alan van Bentem to IJshockeyNederland. “We had to rebuild the team with players who had never played at this level before. A couple of players will retire after this season, so this was a perfect farewell to the game for them.”
For Heerenveen, the summer period will provide time to reflect and prepare for next season in which both teams most certainly will be competing each other for the trophy’s again. They will then also be challenged by the two Belgian top teams Bulldogs Liege and HYC Herentals, who finished third and fourth in the regular season.
Similar to the series between in the Netherlands, both the Belgian Cup and Belgian Championship finals ended up in a match-up between both giants.
Contrary to its northern neighbours, both teams ended up winning one trophy.
Early February the Bulldogs Liege won the Belgian Cup for the second time in its history, thanks to a 4-2 victory. Three weeks later, roles were reversed as HYC Herentals took revenge with a commanding 5-1 win to reclaim the Belgian Championship.
Bulldogs Liege forward Cheyne Matheson captured the BeNeLiga scoring title with a whopping 39 goals and 75 points in 24 games.
The Netherlands and Belgium hockey will meet again soon as both national teams will compete in the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championships Division II Group A, which will be hosted in Tilburg, Netherlands from 23 to 29 April.
Together with Australia, China, Iceland and Serbia they will battle for gold and promotion to Division I Group B.