Champion by thin margins

Prizma Riga’s Latvian title upset, Viiking Estonia’s best again

03.04.2014
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Mihails Koklins of Prizma Riga hoists the championship trophy. Photo: Martins Aise / LHF

RIGA, Latvia – A victory is all that matters in the playoffs, even if it comes by the thinnest of margins. Prizma Riga understood and executed that to perfection. They upset favourite Kurbads Riga in six games to be crowned champions of Latvia for the first time in its existence.

The final game of the Latvian Virsliga was a physical and nervous affair. With tensions running high, goals proved expensive and rare. In the end it took a single power-play goal that proved decisive.

Late in the second period Viktors Lobacovs centred the puck underneath a sliding Pauls Zvirbulis and connected with the stick of Janis Petersons, who was free in the slot. The towering forward didn’t make full contact with the puck but his one-time deflection ended up in the far corner just out of reach of the stretched leg of goaltender Renars Kazanovs.

Prizma fans suffered several heartbreaking moments in the final period, but their defence and netminder Henrijs Ancs literally threw themselves in front of every loose puck to prevent Kurbads from scoring. It was probably the most precious present the team could give to their goaltender who celebrated his 24th birthday.

”The lads threw themselves in front of all kind of shots I could hardly see,” Ancs said in full appraisal of his team mates. “When the season started no one of us really believed we had a shot at the title but now we clinched it... so many emotions are running through my mind.”

The 1-0 victory wasn’t a complete fluke. All four Prizma Riga victories in the series came after one-goal margin games.

When the series between the top seed Kurbads and third-seeded Prizma Riga started, many expected Kurbads to easily run away with it. Despite Kurbads having participated on amateur level last year, it could rely on the presence of the majority of the SMScredit.lv team that captured last year’s title.

Despite a dominant regular season, Kurbads showed it was vulnerable in their semi-final series against HK Ozolnieki in which they never felt completely comfortable. Nevertheless, a 10-2 blow-out victory in game one of the final series had everyone believe this series was going to be concluded quick and easy.

Led by veteran Aleksandrs Macijevskis, Prizma Riga responded admirably with an overtime win in Game 2, but Kurbads once again showed its dominance in game three with a commanding 6-1 win to take back the lead in the series.

Perhaps it was the ease of the two victories that made Kurbads a bit overconfident as Prizma Riga’s resistance was anything but broken.

This was characterized in game four of the series in which Riga rebounded from a 0-2 deficit to snatch a 3-2 victory. From there on things went from bad to worse for Kurbads.

Game five was highlighted by Sergejs Tjoluskins. After scoring twice in regular time, he became Prizma Riga’s hero when he concluded the required penalty shot series with his third goal of the game.

The opportunity to clinch the team’s first ever title did not go wasted. 1,420 Fans showed up at the Volvo Sports Centre in the capital city creating an atmosphere that is usually only witnessed at teams of the national team or the city’s KHL entry Dinamo Riga. Banners, drums and horns filled the arena and set the perfect stage for the season finale.

For head coach Eriks Miluns this title is a dream come true. The current Latvian U18 national team coach started his coaching career with the team back in the late ‘90s and was promoted as head coach of the team at the start of the season after serving as assistant coach the previous two years.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Miluns was extremely proud of the performance of his team. “I can’t thank everyone enough who contributed to this success. We are anything but a rich team but we showed it is possible to achieve success with a low budget.”

2013/2014 Latvijas Virsliga awards:
Best Goalkeeper: Deniss Kurelass (Daugavpils Hokejs)
Best Defenceman: Reinis Demiters (JLSS Zemgale)
Best Forward: Aleksandrs Macijevskis (Prizma Riga)
League MVP: Henrijs Ancs (Prizma Riga)

Tallinn Viiking Sport retains title in Estonia

In a season of extremes, Tallinn Viiking Sport retained the Mestriliiga title in Estonia. The team overcame a 3-0 deficit in game 3 of the best-of-five series against archrivals Kalev-Välk Tartu with an impressive comeback.

Fuelled by an overtime win in the series opener, Viiking Sport crunched their opponents in game 2 with a 7-0 away victory.

The smiles turned to grins though when Kalev-Välk ran out to a bold 3-0 lead halfway game 3. Faced with suffering their first loss of the season and the unpleasant prospect of having to play another game in the series, Viiking raised the level of their game and regained control of the game.

Sergei Sokolov opened the scoring for the champions late in the second period after which Maksim Ivanov and Valery Bobkov found the net in the third period to lift the score to 3-3.

Barely three minutes into overtime it was veteran national team player Maksim Ivanov again who put an end to the series and clinched the title for the capital city team whilst staying unbeaten for a full season.

Asked about the difference between both teams, Viiking youngster Ragnar-Hindrek Russ commented: “I think we were a bit better prepared physically. Winning games and titles is always a good thing and it makes the fans happy, so we all feel great right now.”

The 2013/2014 Estonian championships saw the playoff final that was expected between arguably the two top teams in the league. The pair have combined for four titles, equally divided, the past four seasons and their dominance is not looking to end soon.

JOERI LOONEN

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