From Friday to Sunday the final four teams of the IIHF Continental Cup will battle for the winners’ trophy in Vojens in the south of the Danish peninsula of Jutland, the first time the final tournament will be hosted in Denmark.
The 2011-built Fros Arena in the town of Vojens with a capacity for 5,000 fans will host the 23th IIHF Continental Cup Final. After Finland, Slovakia, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Belarus, Hungary, Latvia, France, Ukraine and the United Kingdom, Denmark becomes the 12th country to host the final tournament.
Let’s have a look at the four teams and how they’ve been doing so far this season.
Nottingham Panthers (Great Britain)The Nottingham Panthers return to Vojens with good memories as they won their preliminary-round group in Denmark in November tied in points with host SonderjyskE thanks to a 4-2 victory against the Danes with four unanswered goals from Brett Perlini, Jullian Talbot, Adam Deutsch and Jason Desantis while Kevin Carr shone in the Panthers net with 40 saves. Jake Hansen led the tournament in scoring with 6 points (2+4).
Back home the Panthers are currently in a group of four teams battling for first place in the Elite Ice Hockey League even though Nottingham left for Europe in fourth place, seven points behind leader Sheffield Steelers, which however has played two more games.
Samuel Herr has shown himself in good shape as the league’s scoring leader with 42 points (21+21) while Carr is also strong catching the pucks in domestic play with a league-leading 92.25% save percentage.
The roster is as in other teams of the British Elite Ice Hockey League dominated by North American players but also includes Great Britain national team players such as Brett Perlini and Nottingham-born Robert Lachowicz and Oliver Betteridge. The Panthers became the only British team to win the Continental Cup in 2017.
Neman Grodno (Belarus)Four times a Belarusian club has won the IIHF Continental Cup including Neman Grodno in 2015 not far away from here in Bremerhaven. Can the team from the Belarusian city close to the border with Lithuania and Poland make it again?
In the preliminary round two wins in two games against HC Donbass (4-3 OT) and Cracovia Krakow (4-1) turned out to be enough to qualify for the final tournament even though the last game ended in a loss.
Neman had four forward with three or more points who ended up among the top-6 scorers of the tournament including Grodno-born top scorer Artyom Kisly (3+1), Yegor Stepanov (3+0), Artyom Levsha (1+2) and Nikita Remezov (0+3).
Neman left the Belarusian Extraliga A in good state. With an 28-13 record they are second and only one point behind leader Yunost Minsk. Nikita Remezov leads the league in scoring with 39 points (11+28), Artyom Kisly is fourth and the team’s top goal scorer (16+18).
While players in the league usually come exclusively from Belarus and other former Soviet republics, Neman Grodno also counts on talent from world champion country Finland. Timo Hiltunen is third in scoring for Neman, but the club puts especially the defensive work in Finnish hands with three Finnish defencemen: Valtteri Hietanen, Joonas Hurri and Sami Jekunen. While the former came straight from the Finnish top league to Grodno this season, the latter two joined the club from Denmark and won’t be in Vojens for the first time.
SonderjyskE Vojens (Denmark)SonderjyskE – short for Sonderjysk Elitesport, literally South Jutland’s elite sport – already played host to a preliminary-round group where 3-1 wins against Ferencvaros Budapest and Amiens Gothiques eventually secured the Danes a spot in the final round despite losing the last game to Nottingham. Danish forward Steffen Frank was most influential with 5 points (3+2) and a +5 rating in three games while Nikolaj Henriksen led all goaltenders with a 97.62% save percentage and 0.66 goals-against average.
Denmark’s southernmost top-level team won three consecutive championships between 2013 and 2015 and is hungry for more but currently the Aalborg Pirates lead the Metal Ligaen with a vast gap before the rest including SonderjyskE in third place with a 16-16 record with all teams ranked second to seventh forming a close group in the standings.
SonderjyskE doesn’t have a shining star topping the stats but a well-balanced team. Frederik Bjerrum (6+19=25) and Mads O. Lund (9+14=23) are the offensive leaders in domestic play, Josh MacDonald has been the best goal scorer (12+8=20) and defenceman Mike Little also reaches 20 points (6+14). Beside five North Americans, the team mostly counts on Danish players, many of them from Vojens and the region.
The Continental Cup Final starts with a re-match against Nottingham Panthers where the Danish team will aim at getting more pucks behind Kevin Carr this time.
Cracovia Krakow (Poland)Cracovia Krakow qualified for the Continental Cup Final in most dramatic fashion. In the preliminary round on home ice in Krakow the team was 1-1 after beating Kazakh champions Beibarys Atyrau but losing to Neman Grodno. The deciding game for the last ticket to the final between Cracovia and Ukrainian champion HC Donbass ended in a 2-1 shootout win for the Poles thanks to the shootout goals from Damian Kapica and Mateusz Rompkowski and the heroics of goaltender Miroslav Kopriva.
While Ondrej Mikula has been the team’s best scorer, second overall in the tournament with two goals and two assists, Czech goaltender Kopriva was the hero for the team. Having started in all three games, Kopriva led the goaltenders in save percentage with 90.91% including 27 saves in the key victory against Donbass.
Back home in the PHL the team hasn’t competed that luckily and is currently in sixth place with 58 points from 36 games. With Kapica, Cracovia has the fourth-best scorer of the league (14+27=41) – the only one from the team in the top-30 – but is only seventh when it comes to defensive work with 98 goals conceded.
When it comes to imports, the team from the old capital of Poland is mostly counting on its Czech and Slovak neighbourhood. Czech coach Rudolf Rohacek has six Czechs nationals and three Slovak imports registered but also Slovenian national team defenceman Miha Stebih and Finnish forward Tomi Leivo are part of the Polish roster.
After a bad start into the season including a six-game losing streak in October, Cracovia has shown more promising results in the last two months and shouldn’t be counted out.
Spot in Champions Hockey League awaits winnerLike in the last years the primary European club competition, the Champions Hockey League, keeps a spot open for a team from the IIHF Continental Cup. The CHL Board already decided that all four finalist would meet the criteria to play in the CHL and the winner will qualify to participate in the Champions Hockey League for the 2020/2021 season.
All four teams have already had CHL experience in the past by qualifying through the Continental Cup or by winning the league back home. Here’s a quiz from the CHL on the four teams.