Donbass back on top, Sokil back in business
by Andy Potts|24 APR 2021
The HC Donbass players get back the trophy back in 2021 after having lost in 2020.
photo: Vadim Shamdan / HC Donbass
HC Donbass won the Ukrainian championship for the eighth time after sweeping Sokil Kyiv in this year’s final. An overtime goal from Nikolai Kazakovtsev snapped a 3-3 tie in the fourth game to kill off Sokil’s hopes of crowning a return to competitive action with a first national title since 2010.

After Donbass impressed in the first three games of the final series, making itself a clear favourite with a 5-1 victory in game two on home ice in Druzhkovka, the fourth game was a much tighter battle. Sokil, playing to stay in the series, jumped to a 2-0 lead with the experienced former KHLer Andrei Mikhnov opening the scoring. Donbass tied it up early in the third on a goal from defenceman Filipp Pangelov-Yuldashev, who was later named play-off MVP, but there was still time for the Kyiv club to regain the lead. However, a power-play goal from Olegs Sislannikovs with three minutes to play sent the game into overtime.

The extra period lasted a little over three minutes before Kazakovtsev, who played 10 seasons in the KHL with Severstal Cherepovets, potted the decisive goal. Sokil went close at the other end, but once Donbass recovered possession, Kazakovtsev launched a counter-attack down the right and finished it off by flashing in a shot from the right-hand channel as Donbass reclaimed the title it lost in last season’s long-delayed finals.

Coaching changes

Victory came despite the sudden departure of head coach Igor Chibiryov, who left on April 6 following a 0-4 loss in Game 4 of the semi-final series against Dnipro Kherson. Pavel Mikulchik, who previously worked as a coach in his native Belarus before taking over as head coach at HK Kramatorsk in Ukraine this season, was given the job until the end of the season and almost immediately picked up the title.

“It’s my first championship as head coach,” he said. “I’m grateful to the management at Donbass for their faith in me when they invited me to join the team. I’ve gained an enormous amount of experience and happiness from my work here.

“I’d also like to thank my predecessors, Sergi Viter and Igor Chibiryov. They did some great work this season and I merely needed to finish the job.”

‘A huge weight off our shoulders’

Donbass lifted the cup for the eighth time just eight months after losing out in the 2020 finals. That playoff series was delayed until October due to the pandemic and was completed just days before the start of the 2020/21 regular season.

Forward Nikita Milyokhin admitted that it was a tough turnaround for the team – but found motivation in trying to swiftly reverse that loss.

“After that first final we were devastated,” he said. “We had to find some strength in ourselves to get out and win in a new season.

“But overall the season went well. We were ready for it, we were consistent throughout. We won a lot of games and we got to the play-offs in good form. We didn’t have any other option – we had to win.”

There were difficulties off the ice as well, with many games played behind closed doors. But Milyokhin was full of praise for his team’s fans, inside and outside the building. “It’s sad that several games were without spectators but even so we could feel their energy,” he added. “Thanks to everyone for that support!”

Club captain Viktor Zakharov had to sit out the concluding game after breaking his hand in Game 3. It was his fourth injury of the campaign, but the 27-year-old forward remained philosophical.
Injuries heal, but this victory lasts forever. We’re expecting an operation next week so there will be time to recover ahead of next season.
Viktor Zakharov
HC Donbass captain
Like his teammates, Zakharov was relieved to reassert Donbass’ status as Ukraine’s top team. “After last season it was very important for us to come back and win again. It’s a huge weight off your shoulders when you work hard all season and get your rewards.”

Strong return for Sokil

This season’s runner-up also had cause for celebration despite falling short in the final. Sokil Kyiv is one of the great names of Ukrainian hockey, having finished third in the Soviet championship of 1985 before winning 12 of the first 19 titles in a newly-independent Ukraine.

However, the club fell on hard times and ceased operations in 2014 before returning for this season. Alexei Zhitnik, Olympic champion and two-time NHL All-Star, returned to his boyhood team as club president and helped to assemble a roster that proved more than capable of competing once again. Under the guidance of head coach Oleg Shafarenko, who won three championships as a Sokil player before finishing his career on the Donbass trophy winners of 2017, the team finished third in regular season. Then, in the play-offs, the Falcons defeated Mariupol before sweeping defending champion Kremenchuk in the semi-final to set up the showdown against Donbass.

Shafarenko was disappointed that ‘schoolboy errors’ let his team down in the final, but overall he was happy with his team’s campaign.

“The season went by in a flash,” he said. “I think everyone is happy to see the club revived and the team playing in the Ukrainian Hockey League. More people started getting interested in hockey, talking about hockey. I think we played some entertaining hockey this season, certainly we tried.”

And the Sokil head coach had no complaints about the outcome of the final series, even though his team followed its impressive 4-0 triumph over last year’s winner with a loss by the same margin against Donbass.

“There’s only one answer – Donbass put together a roster of good players,” Shafarenko added. “That’s why we lost, but it’s no big deal, we just have to get better. We need to look at the positives more than the negatives. Of course, we want to win every game, but we have to be realistic. I think everyone will get what they deserve.”