ROUEN – Will Donbass Donetsk be able to defend its IIHF Continental Cup title? Standing in the Ukrainians’ path is host Rouen Dragons, who won two years ago, along with Asiago and Stavanger.
When the players of Donbass Donetsk entered the plane to France on Thursday morning together with fans, a TV crew and Ukrainian media, they did it with a clear goal. They want to win the title like last year on home ice in Donetsk, and not like two years ago when they lost the last game in Rouen to the hosts.
A title defence is not unthinkable, to say the least. Like last year, the Ukrainian champion will have a strong team that also competes in the Russian-based Kontinental Hockey League. And this year the team seems even stronger, currently ranked third in the KHL’s Western Conference only behind defending champion Dynamo Moscow and SKA St. Petersburg.
Since joining the KHL last season things have changed. Former NHL player Andrei Nazarov was installed as new head coach and will also lead the Ukrainian national team. New players were signed including team captain Ruslan Fedotenko, who was one of two Ukrainian NHL players last year, and Maxim Yakutsenya. Veteran defenceman Gennadi Razin is another Ukrainian who returned to his native country after many years in North America and Russia.
If the Ukrainians want to defend the title, there’s again no way around the Rouen Dragons. The regular French champion entered the new season with the same core of players that won the league last spring led by French national team players and French-Canadians like Marc-André Thinel and François-Pierre Guénette.
The already strong offence got a boost with national team player Loïc Lamperier and Hungarian veteran Janos Vas during the off-season. National goalie Fabrice Lhenry stayed in the Dragons’ net for a fifth year in Normandy while national team defenceman Antonin Manavian joined the Dragons during the season.
Therefore it’s not a big surprise that Rouen leads the league and reached the French Cup Final in Paris. Can they again write history in the Continental Cup after becoming the first French team to win a European club title in 2012?
Fans in Rouen are ready and most tickets are gone. “We’re excited to have this European festival here again,” said Dragons GM Guy Fournier. “It’s great that we can measure ourselves against other champions from Europe.”
Donbass and the Dragons will be challenged by the qualifiers Asiago Hockey from Italy and Stavanger Oilers from Norway.
Asiago Hockey qualified for the Super Final and continues the tradition of Italian qualifiers. The club last time played in the final tournament when it was held in Rouen two years ago.
The team comes to Rouen with a North American touch as ten players were born in Canada or the U.S., most of them have Italian heritage including the team’s top scorers Chris DiDomenico and Sean Bentivoglio. Both came to Asiago in the last few years via the AHL and DiDomenico, who leads the Serie A in scoring, won World Junior gold with Canada in 2009.
The team left home as the second-placed team in the Italian championship just one point behind Pustertal Bruneck.
The Stavanger Oilers are the first Norwegian team to play in the Continental Cup Super Final. One year ago they missed the berth due to a defeat to Belarusian champion Metallurg Zhlobin, this time they beat Belarus’ Neman Grodno in the preliminary round.
The team coached by four-time Olympian Petter Thoresen is on the rise. Founded in 2000, the club joined the top league three years later and reached the final in the last four years winning the championship three times. In 2012 the 4,500-seat DNB Arena opened as the most modern hockey venue in the country.
Goal production is led by Canadian Jean-Michel Daoust and the Americans Kurt Davis and Dan Kissel. With defenceman Henrik Solberg the Oilers have one Norwegian player nominated for the Olympics on the roster. Same as Asiago, Stavanger is ranked second in domestic competition one point behind GET-ligaen leader Vålerenga Oslo.
The 2014 IIHF Continental Cup Super Final opens on Friday with the game between Donbass Donetsk and the Stavanger Oilers at 16:30 before the Rouen Dragons host Asiago Hockey for the late game at Patinoire Île Lacroix at 20:00.
Click here for the rosters that were registered on Thursday night.
All games are broadcast live. A live ticker is available on IIHF.com, Twitter and mobile phone apps for iPhone/iPad and Android.