Saryarka, the defending champion from Kazakhstan, earned its place among the final four on Saturday, while host Cracovia needed till overtime of the last game on Sunday night. Saryarka won the group with a perfect nine points, followed by Cracovia and HK Poprad from Slovakia with four each and Asiago Hockey from Italy with one. Cracovia earned second place over Poprad by virtue of winning their head-to-head meeting in a shootout.
Action began on Friday with Poprad beating Asiago 3-1 and Saryarka shutting out Cracovia 2-0. It looked for a while like Group E’s top two finishers would be determined on Saturday, with Saryarka having won each of its first two games and Poprad minutes away from following suit. In Saturday’s early game, Saryarka beat Asiago 4-2, which all but assured that the Kazakh club would be advancing.
Saturday’s nightcap between Cracovia and Poprad was a tight affair that was tied 1-1 after one period and 2-2 after two. Eight minutes into a nerve-racking third period, David Skokan scored on a penalty shot, and that looked like it might hold up to put the team from the High Tatras through until Damian Kapica tied it back up on a Cracovia power play with 4:05 to go. After a scoreless overtime period, Cracovia won the shootout 2-1, with Czech Erik Nemec scoring the winning goal in the third round.
That result also guaranteed that Saryarka would advance, as it could no longer finish lower than second, but the second spot was up for grabs between two teams. The Kazakhs needed one point from their final game against Poprad to secure first place but did better than that with a 4-0 win in a dominant performance. The loss was a major setback for Poprad, whose hopes now hinged on Asiago beating host Cracovia in the final game of the weekend.
In a dramatic last game before a partisan crowd of 1500, Cracovia led 1-0 after one period but Asiago battled back with two goals 1:48 apart in the second by Anthony Salintiri – one on a 4-on-3 power play and one 4-on-4 and both while Martin Dudas’ major penalty for checking to the head was in effect – to take the lead. Dmitri Ismagilov’s blast from the point with 40 seconds left in the middle frame made it 2-2 after two.
Cracovia dominated most of the third period looking for the go-ahead goal and finally got it with 8:30 to play at the tail end of a wild goalmouth scramble, when Ivan Yatsenko banked a shot from below the goal line off goaltender Gianluca Vallini’s skate and in. Cracovia had all the momentum but Asiago didn’t quit, and with 5:23 to go, Marco Magnabosco converted a pass from Salintiri and went top corner to tie it again. The game went to overtime, where Artem Voroshilo won it on the power play on a set-up by Saku Kinnunen.
Four players earned four points over three games this weekend: Nikita Anokhovski of Saryarka, Salintiri of Asiago, and Skokan and Patrik Svitana of Poprad, with Anokhovski the only player to score three goals. Saryarka’s Viktor Seliverstov was the class among goalies, earning Group E’s only two shutouts, while his goal-against average of 0.67 and save percentage of 97.22 were far-and-away the best.
Neither of these teams has previously medalled at this event. This is the third time Saryarka has participated in the Continental Cup, but this is its first trip to the Final Round. Cracovia has participated on seven previous occasions and made the Final Round the last time the tournament was held in 2019/20 and finished fourth in Vojens, Denmark. Cracovia has also twice played in the Champions Hockey League.
Arlan Kokshetau became the first Kazakh team to ever win the Continental Cup in 2018/19. That was preceded by second-place finishes of Beibarys Atyrau and Nomad Astana in the previous two seasons. The best-ever placements by Polish teams were third-place finishes by GKS Tychy in 2015/16 and GKS Katowice in 2018/19.
Saryarka and Cracovia will join the Aalborg Pirates of Denmark and HK Gomel of Belarus – the top two finishers in Group F – in the IIHF Continental Cup Final Round, to be played 7-9 January and hosted by one of the four participating teams.