ASIAGO, Italy – It all came down to one penalty shot in the Continental Cup Group E to decide about the team travelling to the Super Final in Minsk, Belarus, in January. Sunday night the snow fell lightly outside of Asiago’s ice palace, Palao Odegar, while inside the hosts battled against Danish champion, SønderjyskE Voyjens.
Both teams had won their previous games, so it was a “the winner takes it all” matchup. And in the end the Danish champion booked the ticket to Minsk, when its Canadian star Dustin VanBallegooie buried the 18th penalty shot of the night.
When the puck hit the back of the net behind Asiago netminder David Bellissimo, the 100 SønderjyskE supporters exploded in euphoria, leaving the home crowd crying, but still applauding both teams after 65 – and more – action-packed minutes. In the end it was 4-3 for SønderjyskE.
“Of course we’re not happy to lose this game. But as a hockey fan you had to love it. It had everything,” Asiago coach John Harrington, who is also the coach of the Slovenian national team, stated at the press conference.
His team clearly had the taller, bigger and more physical players. But in the first period Asiago had a hard time coping with SønderjyskE’s smaller and faster players. Asiago took a lot of penalties and was dominated by the guests. Still, Adam Henrich scored the only goal in the first period to give the home squad the lead.
SønderjyskE continued their fast game in the second period and with six minutes left before the next intermission it eventually paid off with Matt McDonald’s powerplay goal. 1-1.
The third period was all action. The momentum swung from Asiago to SønderjyskE and again back to Asiago. SønderjyskE gained the lead twice, but Asiago equalized both times. Dave Borelli scored the game-tying goal with just 1:34 left in regulation time.
33 seconds before the last whistle, SønderjyskE’s Daryl Andrews took a minor penalty for interference, but the Danes survived – both in five on four and later in four on three. It all ended in a shootout, and with SønderjyskE winning after nine rounds.
“I’m so proud of my players. We were the better-skating team tonight and the fact that my third line battled so fine and hard against Asiago’s top-class players makes me really happy. All of the players did a wonderful job,” said SønderjyskE coach and long-serving Asiago goal getter, Mario Simioni, while hugging his wife and his two daughters.
“When we started our season back in August, this tournament was one of our main goals. This is a great win for the club, and we’re now looking forward to the Super Final. Our aim is to make the club and Danish hockey proud once again,” SønderjyskE defenceman Daryl Andrews said.
The tournament began Friday afternoon with SønderjyskE taking on Romanian champion SC Miercurea Ciuc. The Romanians surprisingly beat Sary-Arka Karaganda of Kazakhstan in the second round to advance to the Asiago event. It was a result that had showed that the Transylvanians had to be taken as a serious opponent in the third round.
Miercurea Ciuc, led by Swedish coach Charles Franzén and Slovak star players Hurtaj and Sikorcin, played a brilliant first period against the Danish champion. A goal form Istvan Nagy gave Miercurea Ciuc the lead, but five minutes later, Jason Guerriero equalized for SønderjyskE.
It was all even (1-1) after the first period, but in the second the Danes showed no mercy, and three goals within five minutes decided the game. SønderjyskE eventually won 5-3.
The second game of Friday saw the hosts, Asiago Hockey, take on Ukrainian champ, Sokil Kyiv. The game was fast-paced and intense, and an interesting battle between the Italians, playing the Canadian style of hockey, and Sokil playing the traditional Eastern European passing style.
Asiago stormed forward from the first minute, and the aggressive home team deservedly led 3-1 after two periods. But the cleverly playing Ukrainians slowly took over the game and punished every little mistake made by the Italians. Two goals (Tryrul and Yakovenko) tied the game after 65 minutes and a shootout had to decide which team would be awarded the third point.
The 1,000 spectators in Palao Odegar relived a huge drama when Ralph Intranuovo scored the decider for Asiago. His shot went of the pads of Sokil’s goalie Karpenko, thereafter the puck bounced high and went over Karpenko and landed just behind the goal line.
SønderjyskE led the tournament with three points before taking on Sokil on Saturday afternoon. It became a highly exciting game. The Danish champion pressed forward and skated fast through all 60 minutes, but like in Friday’s game, Sokil showed cleverness every time they had the opportunity to do so.
Two power-play goals by 36-year-old veteran Vadim Shakhraychuk, who still is a high-class player despite his age, gave Sokil a 2-1 lead before the last period, but the high-paced Danes just kept on working, skating and shooting the puck against Karpenko in the Sokil goal. Finally it gave SønderjyskE the necessary goals.
The tall and young forward Steffen Frank became the hero of the 100 travelling fans from Denmark, whose busses had heavy problems with the snow and mountain roads on Friday and arrived five hours later than planned. Frank buried a shot in the near corner at 8:38 of the third period. Shortly after Frank’s scoring, Dustin VanBallegooie made it 3-2 for SønderjyskE with a shot from blue line.
After the SønderjyskE goals, Sokil had a couple of good opportunities, but the Ukrainians didn’t capitalize and lost the game, making their last game of little importance.
1,500 spectators saw host Asiago outplay Miercurea Ciuc in the first half of the game on Saturday night. Asiago had to make at least one point to keep the chance of winning the tournament, and Harrington’s team showed that they were ready from the first second. Miercurea Ciuc simply had no chance.
Dave Borelli and Michele Stevan quickly scored two goals within the first five minutes, and Adam Henrich finished some wonderful power-play combinations to make it 3-0 at 14:48. Borelli scored again to make it 4-0 early in second period. In the rest of the game both teams iced all their players.
It ended 6-1 in favour of Asiago, making the road all clear for a true final on Sunday night.
Sunday afternoon Sokil Kyiv and Miercurea Ciuc played third place. Sokil won 7-4 and proved that they are a step or two above the Romanian champion. Although Miercurea Ciuc finished fourth, it was a great experience for the team.
“As a hockey team of Romania it was a learning process for us to be here. We did not expect to win any games. We were up against some very good teams, and I think the game against Kyiv was our best,” the Romanians’ assistant coach Bela Nagy stated after the final game.
Miercurea Ciuc travelled home with experience, but SønderjyskE moved on the Super Final in Minsk where they’ll meet host Yunost Minsk, reigning champion Red Bull Salzburg and the other qualifier, French champion Rouen Dragons.
It is only the second time a Danish team plays in the Continental Cup Super Final after Aalborg in 2008. On the way to the final, they eliminated Red Bull Salzburg and then-French champion Grenoble, among others.
MICHAEL SØVSØClick here for box scores and photos of Group E.Click here for the Super Final in Minsk.