Nitra & Asiago advance
by Derek O'Brien|21 NOV 2022
Nitra’s Reid Duke scores on Asiago goalkeeper Gianluca Vallini in the 5-2 opening win.
photo: Miroslav Slavik
HK Nitra from Slovakia and Asiago Hockey from Italy have advanced to the 2023 IIHF Continental Cup Final after finishing first and second in Group F in Nitra. The other teams in the final – which will be played 13–15 January at a venue still to be determined – will be the Cardiff Devils from Great Britain and the Angers Ducs from France.

Nitra finished first with 9 points, followed by Asiago with 6. Unia Oswiecim of Poland was third with 3 points and HK Kremenchuk of Ukraine was fourth with 0. 

Playing on home ice, Nitra won all three games in regulation time – 5-2 over Asiago on Friday, 7-3 over Kremenchuk on Saturday and 2-1 over Oswiecim in the group’s final game on Sunday. Although both teams’ qualifications looked probable heading into the final day, that last result was needed to assure them both. And it wasn’t so simple, as it took a goal by Martin Bodak with 6:06 to play to secure the victory.

“Despite the fact that it was the third game in three days, it was excellent hockey,” Nitra head coach Tomas Chrenko said after the last game. “We had a lot of penalties but we managed on the PK very well. The boys deserved the win for their work and improvement.” 

The opening loss to Nitra was the only blemish on Asiago’s record. 

“We had a very bad start,” Asiago head coach and former NHL goaltender Tom Barrasso said after the opening loss. “Three goals against in the first period cannot happen. Even though we knew we had a very good team and were ready for it, we just didn’t execute. Then we got back to our game, but when you get down that many goals, it’s very difficult to come back. Nitra did not surprise me at all. We knew they were going to be very good at home, but we should have handled it much better.”
The Asiago players appeared to take their coach’s words to heart. After falling behind 3-0 in the first period of their first game, they outscored their opponents 11-5 the rest of the way. In a key game that ultimately decided second place, Asiago edged Oswiecim 4-3 on Saturday. The Italian team took a 4-1 lead early in the third period but a pair of late goals from the Polish side made it close. 

The three-time reigning Italian champion finished with a 5-0 win over Kremenchuk, with Italian national team goaltender Justin Fazio posting a 25-save shutout. After that win, all there was to do was watch the last game and hope that Nitra would gain at least a point against Oswiecim in Sunday’s late game. 

“We had a great performance, a solid game, played with intensity for all 60 minutes, unlike the first two games in which we didn’t play the first half well. We were good,” said Asiago forward Michele Stevan. “Now we just have to wait for the result of the last game. We’ve done our work.”

Oswiecim had its work cut out for it heading into the final game, needing a regulation win over the unbeaten host team to create a three-way tie, and win by enough of a margin to finish in the top two in head-to-head goal difference. Supported by 400 travelling fans, they gave it a good effort, outshooting Nitra 32-25. 

After a scoreless first period, Jaroslav Balaz opened the scoring for Nitra midway through the second period and Michal Cichy replied for Oswiecim on a power play late in the frame. After each team killed off a penalty in the first half of the third period, Nitra got the winner at 53:54 when Jakub Lacka’s pass from the corner found Bodak in the high slot. The 23-year-old defenceman then beat Oswiecim goalie Kevin Lindskoug with a wrist shot over the blocker inside the far post. 

“We are happy with it,” Chranko said about his team’s play this weekend. “I think people underestimated the tournament, but this game was at least equal to the level of our league. We’re glad that the boys got up and I believe that we will continue our winning campaign.”
Balaz, who led the tournament with four goals and seven points, was named Top Forward. Asiago’s Allan McShane and Oswiecim’s Pavlo Padakin were next in scoring with five points each, while Vitali Lialka led Kremenchuk with three points. Nitra captain Branislav Mezei, who formerly played for the New York Islanders and Florida Panthers, was named Top Defender. The Top Goalkeeper was Asiago’s Fazio, who in addition to posting the only shutout, posted a goals-against average of 1.50 and a save percentage of 94.74.

Nitra is the first Slovak team to compete in the Continental Cup since MHC Martin won the event in 2008/09. Previous Slovak champions were HKM Zvolen in 2004/05, Slovan Bratislava in 2003/04 and HC Kosice in the inaugural Continental Cup back in 1997/98.  

Asiago is the first Italian club to advance to the final round since Ritten Sport did so in 2016/17 and 2017/18. Previously, Asiago finished fourth in 2015/16. The best-ever finish by an Italian team so far is a second-place finish by the Milan Vipers in 2001/02.

Oswiecim was looking to keep the Continental Cup in Poland after Cracovia Krakow’s victory last year in Vojens, Denmark. In the few years prior to that, GKS Katowice and GKS Tichy both had third-place finishes.

Although Kremenchuk finished this tournament without a win, the fact that the Ukrainian club was able to compete has to be seen as a victory unto itself. The Ice Hockey Federation of Ukraine restarted the national championship as good as it can considering the war. HC Donbass made the final round three years in a row a decade ago, taking the title in 2012/13.
2023 IIHF Continental Cup Group F