Angers Ducs move on to Cardiff
by Andy Potts|17 OCT 2022
Angers Ducs forward Zack Torquato celebrates the 2-1 game-winning goal against SC Miercurea Ciuc in the deciding game for Group C win of the 2023 IIHF Continental Cup.
photo: Theo Bariller Krine
“This is why we play hockey,” reflected Nicolas Ritz, centre for the Angers Ducs. He was speaking after helping his team to a 4-1 victory over Romania’s Miercurea Ciuc in the deciding game of Continental Cup Group C. Ritz produced a starring performance, driving his team’s offence to a third win in as many days. Now the French club progresses to next month’s semi-final tournament in Cardiff.

Ritz, 30, is a veteran of seven World Championship campaigns with France. His playing career has included spells in Finland, Norway and Denmark. Back home, he’s won two French championships and last season’s French Cup. But the Continental Cup represents a special challenge.

“It’s unique,” he told the France Ouest newspaper. “Three games in three days. It keeps forcing you to get back at it right away.

“It’s also a competition where we’ll have to go up a level when we play in Cardiff. This is why we play the game.”

Slovenian goalie jets in

Angers came into the weekend with a selection headache. First-choice goalie Evan Cowley picked up an injury and expected to miss the next fortnight. Head coach Mario Richer called up an old colleague, Slovenian international Luka Gracnar, to fill that gap. Richer briefly coached the netminder in Salzburg during his spell behind the bench at the club’s second team from 2009-2011.

Gracnar, now 28, arrived in Angers at the start of the week and on Friday was pitched into his first game. It was something of a baptism of fire as the 2014 and 2018 Olympian allowed five goals against Ferencvarosi TC of Hungary. “It’s not easy for a goalie,” Richer observed after the game. “Guys need time to get used to [a new team]. And then he lacked a bit of sharpness because he didn’t play for four months. Over the course of the game, his lack of competition showed a little.”

Happily for Angers, Hungarian goalie Gergely Arany also had a tough evening and a goal glut ended in an 8-5 home victory. Game two brought a convincing 12-0 win over outsider Sisak from Croatia, whose obstinate defence in the first period soon crumbled after the intermission.

The final battle

That set up the showdown with Miercurea Ciuc. The team from Romania, also known as SC Csikszereda in the local Hungarian language, won their opening games as well, 5-0 against Sisak and 5-2 in the neighbouring rivalry against Budapest-based Ferencvarosi TC. There is plenty of experience on the roster: Yevgeni Skachkov and Czech defender Karel Kubat have 450 KHL appearances between them, while the club also caused a sensation in a previous Continental Cup campaign.

But the host was too strong. After starting the game with a symbolic face-off from IIHF President Luc Tardif, a dominant first-period display arguably deserved more than a fifth-minute power-play goal from Canadian forward Jonathan Charbonneau. That was a well-executed move while Miercurea Ciuc was down to three skaters, and it typified Angers’ clinical power play.

“Our special teams were important for us, and they were effective. Just like they have been all year,” added Ritz. “In modern hockey, that’s key. You can’t win without it.”

Indeed, Angers’ special teams dominated in this tournament. The power play yielded five goals in 12 attempts for a 41.67% strike rate, while seven penalty kills allowed no goals.

In Sunday’s clash, Miercurea Ciuc was not done. Outshot 22-7 in the opening frame, the Romanians hung around and got their reward in the 28th minute when Tihamer Becze tied the game. Was the underdog about to bite?

Not this time. Parity lasted less than four minutes before Zack Torquato redirected a Ritz point shot into the net. Another power-play goal, this time from captain Robin Gaborit, increased the lead.

Ritz, who was named player of the game, was always confident.

“When they came back to 1-1, I knew that we had the weapons to react,” he said. “We know how to respond fast and make the game easier. We have that experience, we can close ranks and regain our momentum.

“We got the job done and we’re through to the next round.”

The tournament’s leader scorer, Tommy Giroux, added a fourth goal early in the third to wrap up the win. He finished the weekend with 11 (5+6) points from three games; Sunday’s action descended into a rather scrappy finale as penalties came more frequently than scoring chances. Not that anyone in the Angers camp was complaining.

Instead, club president Michael Juret is looking to add to the roster as the Ducs chase glory at home and abroad. Tuesday sees Angers face Tours in Coupe de France action and the Ligue Magnus campaign continues Friday, when victory over Gap would lift Angers into second place in the standings.

“With our current personnel, we won’t be able to get to the end of every competition,” Juret admitted. “We are working on a possible reinforcement, an extra attacker. But we won’t rule anything out as we look to find solutions to our weaknesses.”

No reprieve for Miercurea Ciuc

While Angers advances as group winner, Miercurea Ciuc still had a theoretical chance of a trip to Cardiff. Following Saryarka Karagada’s withdrawal from the competition, the best runner-up from the two tournaments played this weekend would join the two group winners. Miercurea Ciuc could make it, but needed Asiago to rack up a big score against Jesenice in the deciding game in Group D. That didn’t happen. Asiago’s 5-2 victory meant that both teams advance. Angers and Jesenice will join host Cardiff Devils and Latvia’s Zemgale in the semi-final round in Wales from 18 to 20 November.

Ferencvarosi TC took third place in the group thanks to a final-day win over Sisak. The Croats at least had the consolation of scoring a couple of goals in a 10-2 loss.

Giroux, a dashing Quebecois left winger, finished the tournament as leading scorer. That may not be a surprise: he led Angers in scoring in last season’s Ligue Magnus with 52 (19+33) points in 44 games. Charbonneau, currently leading the scoring for the Ducs this season, was next with 9 (1+8). Attila Adorjan of Miercurea Ciuc was the best goalie, stopping 93.68% of shots for a GAA of 2.00. That was a fraction better than Gracnar.
2023 IIHF Continental Cup Group C