Neman triumphs in Belarus

Grodno’s team goes unbeaten through playoffs

03.04.2017
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The trophy stays in Grodno: The Neman players celebrate on home ice after winning the Belarusian playoffs.

GRODNO, Belarus – Neman Grodno powered to its sixth Belarusian championship after sweeping Yunost Minsk in the President’s Cup final.

Thursday’s 6-2 victory on home ice wrapped up a flawless post-season for Sergei Pushkov’s men as the team completed its playoff series against Lida, Gomel and Yunost without dropping a single game.

The final series should have been a hard-fought affair. The two most successful teams in Extraliga history went head-to-head; Yunost, regular season champion and defending President’s Cup holder, faced Neman, runner-up in the first stage of the season and still smarting from defeat in Minsk during last year’s playoffs. In reality, though, it was one-sided from the off. Neman’s 2-0 victory at Yunost in game one set the tone. The men from Grodno produced a high-tempo, pressing game that left Yunost unable to produce the kind of coherent hockey it had hoped for.

Pushkov steadily built up his roster over the course of the season. Mikhail Stefanovich, back after a two-year doping ban, joined the playing staff in November eager to prove his worth; he finished the season in style with a hat trick in game four. Goalie Vitali Trus displaced Maxim Samankov, and finished with four post-season shutouts and a save percentage of 96.4% as Neman dominated the playoffs. Gleb Klimenko, a KHL veteran, also arrived early in the season and added valuable experience; by contrast, Yunost’s high-profile KHL recruit, Dmitri Meleshko, did not feature in the playoffs at all.

“I was happy that it all came together from the start,” Pushkov said after winning the cup. “I was a bit worried about our game because we had lots of changes, but the guys got on with it and set out on the path that led us to this victory. I thank them for it.

“They had a great will to win, and this run of 12 [playoff] wins proves it.”

Neman forward Pavel Boyarchuk finished with 11 post-season goals and 16 points, topping the scoring charts. He picked out game three as the key point of the series, and added: “The momentum was in our favour after that, but if the last game looked easy from the outside, I can promise you it wasn’t.”

Demand was high for the final two games of the playoff series, and Neman responded to sell-out crowds in the arena by setting up a fan zone with a big screen outside. “It’s great that all of Grodno can celebrate this together,” Boyarchuk added.

Those fans in Grodno, a city of 360,000 people close to the Polish border, had an unusual way of celebrating their team’s triumph – a flashmob under the hashtag “we’re not tramps” encouraged supporters to come to the games and pose for photos wearing ties. The idea was inspired by tracksuit-clad Yunost head coach Mikhail Zakharov, who joked that his team could not even afford club ties for the coaching staff.

“It’s Neman that’s a wealthy club; we’re tramps,” he said after the second game of the series. In response, Neman’s supporters’ club urged everyone to attend the games on Wednesday and Thursday in a tie – regardless of whether it was accompanied by a traditional suit, or worn over a hockey jersey.

Zakharov spent much of the final series shooting from the lip as his team’s defence of its title faltered. Belarusian sports website pressball.by reported that after losing the opening game in Minsk 2-0, he criticized young players in Belarus for a lack of commitment to the game, likening them to “guys from a factory, not hockey players”. The following day, lamenting a 5-3 loss, he added: “Take another look at the fourth goal we allowed. If I’d been on the ice, I could have stopped that, even at my age!” After Thursday’s decisive defeat, he congratulated Neman. “Our opponent was stronger, everyone could see that,” he said. “On our team, we couldn’t find any leaders, nor any players with character. All I can add is that winning a championship is a great achievement, but retaining it demands extra skills, not just from the coach, not just from the team, but from everyone together, united not by a sense of responsibility but by a desire to win.”

Yunost remains Belarus’ most successful club, with seven championship victories in total. But Neman is now just one title behind. Of the other teams currently competing in the Belarusian Extraliga, only SKA-Khimik Novopolotsk has more than one title win, and its pair of successes date back to the late 1990s.

Neman goes forward to next season’s Champions Hockey League, returning to the tournament it contested in 2015/16 while Yunost Minsk as regular-season champion can look to repeat its Continental Cup victories in 2007 and 2011 when entering the European stage.

ANDY POTTS

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