Arlan Kokshetau is celebrating its first ever Kazakhstan Championship after winning the final series 4-2 against defending champion Nomad Astana.
A solitary goal from captain Vladislav Kolesnikov, midway through Monday’s game in Kokshetau, secured the trophy for the team – ending a frustrating series of near misses. Arlan, founded in 2009, had twice finished third in the championship and was defeated three times in the final series. Along the way, it topped the regular season table four times before finally landing the prize this season.
It took this year’s title against Nomad, a feeder club for KHL organization Barys Astana, which was out to defend its 2017 crown and had finished on top in the regular season. A tight series saw five of the six games decided by a one-goal margin, two of them in overtime. Arlan twice trailed, losing games one and three, but held firm to close it out thanks to a pair of 1-0 victories in the last two games of the series.
Among the key players for Vladimir Kapulovski’s team, goalie Mikhail Demidov stood out. He produced shutouts in the last two games of the final to secure the trophy. Demidov, born in Yekaterinburg, Russia, spent much of his career in the Russian leagues, including three KHL appearances for Torpedo Nizhni Novgorod. In recent seasons the 31-year-old played in the second-tier VHL for Sary-Arka Karaganda and Torpedo Ust-Kamenogorsk, two prominent Kazakh teams, before joining Arlan last year.
Vadim Bernikov, who was named as the top forward in the play-offs after tallying 11 points, also enjoyed a long career in Russian hockey. The Chelyabinsk native had 438 KHL appearances for Spartak, Severstal and Vityaz. His arrival at Arlan this season was not his first experience of Kazakh League action, though: he played a handful of games in the championship for Barys back in 2006 before the club joined the KHL.
The Russian influence shouldn’t come as a surprise. Kokshetau is located in the north of Kazakhstan, close to the Russian frontier. In the 19th century, it was even part of the Omsk province. Arlan’s willingness to explore both sides of the border brought plenty of experience to the roster and in the event, that proved decisive in a tight series. Arlan’s head coach Kapulovski paid tribute to the youthful Nomad line-up. “They’ve got a good, young team, with many guys who can play at a higher level in the future,” he said. “But we showed character, fighting qualities. Almost every game was decided by a single goal.”
Nomad’s head coach, Georgi Vereshagin, felt that his team’s inexperience had cost it. Speaking after game five, when Arlan moved in front for the first time in the series, he said: “We didn’t start the game how we wanted. The younger guys on the team seemed a little unprepared for what was coming. During the intermission we were able to put that right and we started to play a different game, but unfortunately goals are hard to come by in this series, just like in the semi-final against Beibarys Atyrau.
“For many of the guys, it’s their first ever play-off, moreover it’s their first ever final. It’s hard to keep that spark, and somehow they were little shaken in those first few shifts.”
Goals were indeed a problem for Nomad in the final series. The team’s two victories both came in overtime, with 2-1 verdicts on each occasion. And, in the four games Arlan won, Nomad managed to score just twice – a tribute to the eventual champion’s defensive stranglehold.
For Nomad, consolation might come in the future. Players like Ivan Vereshagin, the 18-year-old forward who was nominated as the best rookie of the play-offs, and Alikhan Asetov, the 21-year-old who topped the team’s scoring over the course of the campaign, suggest that there are new talents emerging in Kazakhstan.