The series was decided in Minsk on Wednesday night. A high stakes game saw Yunost playing for the title while Neman was battling to keep its hopes alive and, as a result, chances were often at a premium. The decisive moment came midway through the third period when Stanislav Lopachuk’s penalty shot put Yunost in front. Alexander Kulakov’s empty-net goal sealed a 2-0 victory.
Yunost’s eighth title makes it the most successful club in Belarusian championship history. Neman remains on seven wins, while Shakhter Soligorsk’s 2015 triumph was the last time the title went to a different club.
It might have been very different. Moments before Yunost took the lead, Neman’s Alexander Malyavko head a great chance to score at the other end. “I could have scored, but I froze in front of the net,” he told the Belarus Ice Hockey Association website. “It was a 100% chance, my brother gave me a great pass. And you know hockey, if you don’t score on them, they score on you.
“It felt like I gave Yunost their chance. From the corner I made a risky pass and Misha Stefanovich intercepted it before going on to win the penalty shot. To be honest, I’ll blame myself for a long time to come.”
The tight finish was typical of the series, as Yunost’s Yegor Mazhuga acknowledged. “Every game was really tough,” he said. “Both sets of players were going for the championship, so nobody wanted to give an inch. This is what we work for all year and everyone gave it 100%. Each of the games we won was settled by a single goal, maybe there was a bit of luck on our side, but that’s why we finished first.”
Yunost head coach Mikhail Zakharov rated Wednesday’s 2-0 win in Minsk as “one of the best seasons of my life”. “Before the game I warned the guys: ‘If we have to go back to Grodno, it won’t be a picnic. Let’s press, let’s get it done here, let’s give it everything.’
“They were great. They coped with the situation even though only a few of our players have experience of winning titles before – for most of them, this is the first.
“It was also a really cool birthday present for my eldest daughter, Kristina. And I promised my youngest that we would win. Overall, it’s one of the best seasons of my life, if not the best.”
Victory was also special for veteran forward Alexander Zhidkikh. The 35-year-old had been part of Neman’s two championship rosters in the two previous seasons but left for HC Gomel during the summer. As the current campaign progressed, though, he was invited to join Yunost and went on to complete an unlikely hat-trick of title wins.
“Winning the title feels the same everywhere,” he told belarushockey.com. “It’s just a storm of joy and emotion. I’m really grateful to Yunost – during the course of this season, they had faith in me, they invited me to the team. I’m really happy.”
Neman’s Sergei Pushkov relinquished his grip on the title he won for the past two seasons and admitted that his team came up short in the series. “I guess it wasn’t the prettiest hockey, it felt like a game that might be settled by a single goal. In the end it was all about our mistakes, which led to that penalty shot that Lopachuk converted so well. We lost the series, but it absolutely wasn’t about a lack of character, desire or discipline: three of the five games went to overtime, every game was a battle from goal to goal. I’m happy with our guys, they did everything they could. But, of course, without goals it’s hard to win games and we failed to score in seven periods. That was maybe the only thing that let us down.”
Yunost’s success means it returns to the Champions Hockey League for a third time. The Belarusian club qualified as national champion after its 2016 triumph and was back last season as a reward for winning the IIHF Continental Cup in 2018.
The title may be decided, but the action continues in Belarus. Shakhter and Dinamo Molodechno are contesting a bronze-medal series, with Shakhter leading 2-1 after three games. There was also a brand new promotion and relegation playoff, with two teams from Extraliga A playing a round robin against the top two from the second tier. At the end of the tournament, the two Extraliga A representatives, Lida and Metallurg Zhlobin, secured their status in the top flight after seeing off the challenge of Lokomotiv Orsha and Mogilev.