10th title for Yunost
by Andy Potts|09 APR 2021
The Yunost Minsk players celebrate after defending their Belarusian Extraliga title.
photo: BIHA
Yunost Minsk is celebrating its 10th Belarusian championship success after sweeping Gomel in the final of this year’s President’s Cup. The series concluded in Gomel when Sergei Drozd snapped a 3-3 tie deep into the second period of overtime.

The golden goal came after Mikhail Stefanovich stole the puck from Oleg Popov on Yunost’s blue line and led a two-on-two rush. Goalie Maxim Lubski stopped Stefanovich’s shot, but was powerless to deny Drozd on the rebound. The Minsk forward stopped the clock at 92:51 to seal his team’s third successive title.
Yunost captain Andrei Antontov later posted his own tribute to Drozd on Instagram: “More than anyone else, this guy deserved the winning goal in overtime to bring us the championship,” he wrote. And Stefanovich, the architect of the decisive play, was hailed as tournament MVP by head coach Yevgeni Yesaulov.

Yesaulov wins on ‘home’ ice

However, Wednesday’s epic battle was out of character in a final series dominated by Yunost. In the first three games, Yesaulov’s team won 3-0, 5-1 and 5-0 before Gomel showed some belated resistance. 

Yesaulov admitted that the additional half hour was “stressful”. In the post-game press conference, he said: “I wouldn’t single out difficult games in this series, each was complicated in its own way. But yes, today was stressful. From a psychological point of view, this game was the most difficult.”

The winning head coach spent much of his playing career with Gomel and, despite playing on the road with Yunost in this decider, felt that he finally got to win the championship on home ice.

“I spent many years in Gomel and when I played here, we won the championship in Minsk,” he recalled. “Now, one could say I won as a coach on my native ice.

“It’s always great to play in front of this crowd. Whether they are rooting for you or against you, it’s something to behold. I’m very grateful to both sets of supporters, ours and Gomel’s.”

Topping the table and changing the coach

Yunost’s path to the final began with topping the regular season table. Despite this, the club parted company with head coach Alexander Makritski in January, with Yesaulov stepping up to replace. He took his new charges into a first-round playoff match-up against Brest, with the top seed advancing in four games. Then came a huge battle with Metallurg Zhlobin, which took Yunost to seven games before falling in round two.

However, young forward Kirill Tyutyayev rejected the suggestion that the final was the easiest step of his team’s journey. “Wednesday’s game proved that it wasn’t,” he told hockey.by. “It’s just that we kept scoring early goals and that had an impact on the opposition. Maybe at times Gomel lost concentration, but our first series against Brest was easier. Zhlobin battled really hard against us, but in the final we learned from the mistakes we made in the series against Metallurg.”

Gomel satisfied despite defeat

Although Gomel fell short in the final, the runner-up had plenty to be proud of this season. The club reached its first final since 2009. Many observers reckoned this was the best team assembled since it won the 2003 championship. Moreover, the Lynx impressed despite having a relatively modest budget – certainly smaller than Shakhtyor, defeated in the second Round of the playoffs – and relying heavily on emerging young players. The average age on Sergei Stas’ roster was just over 24 years, with only Dinamo Molodechno icing a younger group this season.

The roster relied heavily on locally-developed players, seasoned with ‘cast-offs’ from elsewhere. Much of Stas’ success stems from identifying individuals performing below their potential and utilising their talents. Thus, in addition to the team’s leading troika of captain German Nesterov, 21-year-old Alexander Skorenov and Yunost loanee Vladislav Boiko, we saw 20-year-old Kirill Mezheinikov produce his best season in the Belarusian top league while veteran Nikolai Suslo had a career-best campaign after returning to the club from Grodno.

Stas himself, in his second season behind the bench at Gomel, was happy with his team’s season. “It was a thrill from start to finish,” he said. “We were top of the table for a time, which I never expected, and we won the silver medal.

“And I deliberately say ‘won’, not ‘got’. We deserve this. Of course, there’s a slight disappointment. Losing today’s game hurts, but we have nothing to be ashamed of. Today, we played the hockey that we wanted to show throughout the series and that compensates for the three games we lost at the start.”

Gomel also showed plenty of grit. In the opening round of the playoffs, the Lynx were on the wrong end of an overtime loss in the longest game in Belarusian hockey history, losing to Neman Grodno in the sixth additional period and going down 2-3 in the series. However, Stas and his players rebounded to win the next two games and progress before disposing of Shakhtyor in five games to reach the final.

In the end, Stas felt that his team’s lack of big-game know-how made the difference against a Yunost team with title-winning seasons embedded in its DNA. “We only had one or two players that had been to a final like this,” he said. “A lot of the guys didn’t really understand that this is very different from the regular season. It’s completely different in terms of intensity and psychology. Lots of details and nuances come to the fore. For many of our players, it seemed like this was just another game. But it’s more than a game.”

Jersey from Salt Lake City 2002 for auction

Hockey is over but the national team prepares for the World Championship. At the same time a unique jersey from the Salt Lake City 2002 Olympics of Andrei Rasolko signed by all players from the tournament is put for auction.

At these Olympics, Belarus had its own “Miracle on Ice” by beating Sweden in the quarter-finals to reach the semi-finals – the highest achievement in top-level ice hockey for Belarus. You can access the auction on eBay.