MIERCUREA CIUC, Romania – Latvia’s Liepajas Metalurgs won Group C in Romania to advance to the third round of the Continental Cup. Already the opening game was the key.
What ahead of the tournament had looked like a potentially tightly fought contest between all four participating teams, became in the end a two-horse race with Liepajas Metalurgs from Latvia battling it out with the champions of Kazakhstan, Beibarys Atyrau, for top spot and progress to the third round.
The two teams crossed swords already in the opening fixture of Group C which also turned out to be the best game of the tournament.
Liepaja won the early “final” 3-2 in a shoot-out, after Beibarys had a 2-1 lead in the third period. As Liepaja and Beibarys were virtually uncontested in the other games, the opening game was really the decider.
Liepaja will travel to Donetsk, Ukraine, for the third round that takes place November 25-27. The other teams in Group E are Donbass Donetsk, Rubin Tyumen (Russia) and Cracovia Krakow (Poland).
Both teams had travelled far and wide to get to Romania. Liepaja arriving from road games in the Belarusian championship while the Kazakhs had two flights and a coach journey from Odessa, Ukraine, lingering in their legs.
Despite the jet-lag, the game got off to a good start with Beibarys creating a number of good scoring opportunities, but thanks to inspired goaltending by Janis Kalnins and a fine goal by Lauris Bajaruns it was the Latvians who were leading 1-0 after the first period.
The more experienced Kazakhs worked themselves back into the game and they got their reward early in the second period when Sergei Ogrodnikov tied the game before Arturs Ozonlins shortly after brought Beibarys, last season's champions of Kazakhstan, in front, 2-1.
The third period saw the tournament's best defenseman, Liepaja's captain Vents Feldmanis, make it 2-2, and in the end penalty shots decided the outcome of game, with Juris Upitis scoring the winning penalty that gave the Latvians a fine start to the tournament.
The Romanian hosts, HSC Csikszereda, who last year surprisingly progressed to the third round of the competition, had ahead of the season made a few changes to the team, with head coach, Swede Charles Franzén and inspiring centre Ladislav Sikorcin departing for new pastures.
Csikszereda's current crop of players had to graft long and hard to beat off a very young and inexperienced Olimpija Ljubljana team, who although trailing by three goals late into the second period, showed plenty of character.
The Slovenes got the game back to 4-3 after two successive goals by Jaka Zdesar before the return of Zsolt Molnar from injury inspired the home team to score four goals in the final period and end up 8-3 winners.
Liepaja then beat the Ljubljana 11-1, with the outstanding forward of the tournament, Upitis, scoring a hat-trick before Csikszereda's hopes of progressing to the next round was quickly dented by a strong and solid Beibarys team.
The Kazakhs scored an early goal to silence the home supporters and when Mikhail Panshin made it 5-0 after 34:25 it was game over for the Transylvanians. The game finished 5-1 with Csikszereda’s Slovak veteran goalie Stanislav Kozuch being the only one of the home team’s import players that came anywhere near normal capacity.
Olimpija bowed out of the tournament on Sunday when they lost 13-3 to Beibarys. But head coach Bojan Zajc's young team gained invaluable experience. Despite the heavy loss, they played a fine first period that finished 1-1.
Prior to the very last game, the hopes of progress for Beibarys was now in Csikszereda’s hands. But despite an inspiring first ten minutes, the home team was overpowered by the efficient Latvians who led by three goals after the first period. Another three goals were added by Liepaja in the third period with the Latvians safely proceeding through to the next round, winning the game 6-0.
“It was a good tournament for us. When we first came here, we were mainly looking to get more experience playing against other teams,” said Liepaja’s Belarusian head coach Valeri Varonin.
“So I am happy with the good hockey we played. We were really good defensively, but also scored some beautiful goals. But for the next round we have to work hard on improving both our penalty-killing and power-play.”