The teams went into that game with a perfect record. Mogo started off with a 5-3 win over Romania’s Brasov before Donbass thumped Crvena Zvezda Belgrade on the first day. The Latvians then beat Brasov 6-1 before the host went one better against the Serbian club, which had earned a place here by winning through the first round of competition. There was everything to play for on Sunday.
Before the game, Ainars Podzins, the sole Latvian on the Donbass roster, said he felt his team was the favourite against his compatriots from Riga. Meanwhile, Mogo head coach Igors Smirnovs made the unusual admission that his team had looked to conserve its energy against Crvena Zvezda. “We controlled the whole game and we tried to preserve our strength for the next game, because that one will be decisive,” he said.
Dramatic finaleThe result was a hard-fought battle between two well-matched teams. After both scored heavily in the first two games, neither could break the deadlock in the first period of the decider. When the opening goal did come, it was a result of a goaltending error: Mogo’s Renars Kazanovs was caught in possession behind the net and experienced forward Alexander Materukhin reacted fastest to smuggle the puck into the unguarded target. Materukhin, unusually, has played World Championship hockey for both Ukraine and Belarus, and has won Continental Cups with Donbass and Yunost Minsk.
The third period saw Mogo hit back, with Renars Demitas tying the game before Janis Ozolins potted what looked like the game-winner on 56:24. Donbass had other ideas and when Alexander Vasiliev’s dump and chase took a crazy bounce off the boards, youngster Vadym Mazur was on hand to gobble up the tying goal.
After a dramatic finish to regulation, the penalty-shot shootout brought even greater tension. After seven failed attempts between the two teams, Rudolfs Maslovskis stepped up for Mogo and saw his shot drop down off the bar and bounce goalwards off the back of Stepan Goryachevshikh. The goalie, who lifted the Continental Cup with Yunost in 2007 and was part of Donbass’ winning roster in 2013, reacted quickly enough to catch the puck before it slithered around the line.
The Latvians protested, believing they had a goal, but the delay did little to help their own goalie, Kazanovs. He was beaten by Vasiliev on the next attempt and that proved enough to win the game and the group for Donbass.
After the game, Donbass head coach Sergei Viter said: “It’s hard to find the right words. First and foremost, thanks to our opponent for a great game. Today we got a real cup final. We were fortunate that we had two-and-a-half months of hard work with our guys, somewhere that made the difference for us.
“It does us good to come through a game like that. It’s a great experience. Sure, it was tense, but that’s why we love hockey.”
For Smirnovs, there were no complaints about the outcome despite being so close to victory. “We tried to play on the front foot throughout the game, even though we knew Donbass was more skilled than us,” he said. “If we let them skate freely, our chances of winning would have been much reduced. And I was pleased that, unlike the previous two games, we maintained a genuinely high level of play for three periods. For our guys, that was as good as we could play; I’ve no complaints about anyone.”
Return of the old guardThe Donbass roster for this tournament was stacked with familiar faces from the team’s spell in the KHL and the 2013 Continental Cup triumph. Materukhin and Vasiliev were both part of that roster, as was American defenceman Clay Wilson. All three were back on the team here, and each made a significant contribution. Vasiliev, in addition to his winning penalty shot, was the tournaments leading scorer with 7 (1+6) points from three games.
Materukhin had four goals and came third on the scoring chart, while Wilson, now 36, was the most productive defenceman at the event with one goal and three helpers.
And it was Materukhin, who played a big role in calming the younger players on the team and helping to refocus when Mogo took that late lead.
“I could see the disappointment on the guys’ faces, because it always hurts to give up a goal so late in the game. There’s no time left, you really feel more pressure on you,” he told the Donbass website.
“But we knew we had nothing to lose, we went forward, and we got back into it. We simply had no choice – there was no way we could lose that game and we just had to struggle through everything and fight to the end. I knew that some of the guys had no energy left but, like I said, there was nowhere else for us to go.”
Vasiliev acknowledged how the noise from the 1,933 fans in the arena helped to lift the team for that push to save the game.
“When you feel like you’ve got nothing left, but people are still urging you on, suddenly you find new reserves within yourself,” he added.
Continental action makes a welcome returnThe tournament was the first time in six years that the Continental Cup came to Ukraine. As a result, the organizers worked hard to make it a memorable event on and off the ice and to offer a reminder that hockey in the country is still very much alive.
Guests of honour included leading Ukrainian boxers, wrestlers and actors, as well as representatives from Shakhtar Donetsk Football Club. Andrei Pyatov performed the ceremonial puck drop ahead of Saturday’s game against Brasov, while club coach Dario Srna and fellow player Viktor Kovalenko also attended.
And Materukhin was also impressed with the organization and support for his team. “Everything was wonderful,” he added. “The support was top class. I don’t think you would see a tournament staged to these high standards everywhere.”
Onward to KrakowThe host’s success ends a two-year sequence of missing out against Latvian opposition. In 2017 and 2018, Kurbads Riga beat Donbass to top spot at this stage of the competition. The Ukrainians now advance to the third round of the tournament and will face Beibarys Atyrau (Kazakhstan), Neman Grodno (Belarus) and host Cracovia Krakow (Poland).
Earlier on Sunday Brasov won 7-4 against Crvena Zvezda to secure third place in the group.