Neman & Cracovia make final round
by Derek O'Brien|18 NOV 2019
Neman Grodno forward Yegor Stepanov is one step faster than Cracovia Krakow’s Kasper Bryniczka but both teams qualified for the final round for the 2020 IIHF Continental Cup.
photo: Lukasz Zoladz
Neman Grodno and Cracovia Krakow have advanced from Group F of the 2020 IIHF Continental Cup in Krakow, Poland to the final round. Neman was the first team to secure advancement on Saturday night after winning its first two games. The Belarusian team was joined by the host club the following night, after a dramatic shootout victory over HC Donbass.

“We just wanted to win games,” said Neman forward Timo Hiltunen. Speaking about his team’s 4-3 overtime victory over Donbass and 4-0 win over Cracovia, he said: “The first two games, I don’t know if we played as well as we’re capable of, but we won.”

Entering the last game of the weekend, Neman had already finished with five points, Donbass was second with four and Cracovia third with three. There were potential tie-breaking scenarios in play but for the two teams involved it was simple – win and go on, or lose and you’re done.

“No matter what, we know that tomorrow’s like a championship game for us,” Donbass defenceman Clay Wilson said after Saturday’s game. “We’re gonna be ready to come and play hard.”

Before a raucous crowd in Cracovia Arena that was mostly pro-Cracovia but also had a sizable contingent of Donbass supporters, the two teams battled their way to a scoreless first period in which Miroslav Kopriva – outstanding all weekend – and opposite number Stepan Goryachevskikh stopped everything. The two goalies would match each other save-for-save for most of the night. 

In the second period, the tension in the building built up as the tensions on the ice rose. Just past the game’s midpoint, Cracovia’s Kasper Bryniczka opened the scoring and opened the release valve for the home fans, who rejoiced. Then early in the third, on a delayed Cracovia penalty, Vitali Lyalka tied it on a great second effort, reaching as he was falling to put the puck past the outstretched pad of Kopriva and just inside the far post. That gave the Donbass fans at that end of the rink their biggest reason to celebrate on the evening. But that was the only puck to beat Kopriva all night, shootout included. 

“We scored the first goal, which I think was very good for our state of mind, and then they got the 1-1 goal, but we just continued to play our game; play solid defence,” said Cracovia forward Ondrej Mikula.

The game went to overtime, where by far the biggest chance went to Mikula, who after being hooked from behind on a breakaway was assessed on a penalty shot. However, he was thwarted by the goalie’s poke-check.

“I tried to fake a shot between the legs and go to the backhand, but the goalie was very clever and anticipated what I was trying to do,” said Mikula. “I thought I could score on the backhand but I didn’t. I’m just glad that my teammates were able to. That was amazing.”

Despite not scoring on the penalty shot, Mikula was one of only two players in the weekend tournament to record four points. The other was Neman’s Artyom Kisly. 

In the shootout, the Cracovia shooters scored on two of their first three attempts, while Kopriva denied all three Donbass shooters he faced, to the dismay of the Ukrainian fans behind his back. When Mateusz Rompkowski scored in the fourth round to give his team an insurmountable 3-0 lead, the Cracovia players poured over the bench and mobbed both him and Kopriva. 

“It was a very tough game for us,” said Mikula. “We believed the whole game that we could be successful and now I’m just so happy that we won. Happy for ourselves and for our fans, who were amazing.”
The result created a three-way tie on five points, with Donbass being the odd team out. The Ukrainian champs weren’t beaten in regulation time in any of their three games, but lost in extra time to both Neman and Cracovia.

Earlier on Sunday, Beibarys Atyrau of Kazakhstan beat Neman 4-2 for Beibarys’s first win and Neman’s first loss. 

“We had no chance (to advance), but we wanted to win before going home,” said Beibarys forward Stepan Pfilonov. The Kazakhs were perhaps unlucky to come away with no points from their first two games against Cracovia and Donbass – neither of which they were outplayed in. 

“It’s a big tournament and we tried to win every game, but something went wrong,” said Pfilonov. “In the last game we were able to score a few goals and win, but the games before that, I don’t think we played bad but we weren’t able to capitalize on enough of our chances.” 

Beibarys came out of the gate strong against Neman with two goals in the first 3:39. The first goal was shorthanded and the second, while technically at even strength, came just one second after that same penalty expired. 

“We started really badly,” Hiltunen admitted. “I guess we weren’t ready to play. I mean, two shorthanded goals … that’s pretty bad.”

After looking quite strong in a Saturday-night win over Cracovia, in which Neman secured advancement, Neman faced a quick turnaround Sunday afternoon, to which Hiltunen said: “Yeah, we already knew we were through to the next round but we still wanted to win today.”
Neman and Cracovia advance to the final round of the Continental Cup will be played 8-10 January, where they will be joined by the Nottingham Panthers of Great Britain and SonderjyskE Vojens of Denmark. The venue will be announced at a later date.

“I don’t think first or second matters so much,” Hiltunen said about Neman’s placement within the group. “The big thing is that we’re going to the next round and we feel pretty good about that.” 

“For the final round, we don’t know where we’ll be going or anything like that,” said Mikula. “Our goal was to advance and we did. That was a tough three days but that’s our job. Now, we’ve just got to continue going because we’ve got one day off and then a league game on Tuesday.”
2020 IIHF Continental Cup Group F