Arlan, fifth in the regular season table, sprang a huge surprise in the semi-final when it disposed of top-seed Torpedo Ust-Kamenogorsk, and went up 2-0 in the final series. But the outside apparently peaked too soon: Saryarka roared back to take the title.
Happy home-comingIt’s the first time since 2010 that Saryarka has won Kazakhstan’s national championship. In 2012, the club moved to Russia’s VHL, where it reached three finals and won two of them. This season, though, the club joined the newly-formed Pro Hokei Ligasy along with fellow VHLers Torpedo Ust-Kamenogorsk and Nomad Nur-Sultan due to the travel restrictions imposed in response to the pandemic.
Saryarka and Torpedo found life in their national championship agreeable. The two led the way in the regular season, breaking the 100-point barrier while third-placed Beibarys Atyrau finished on 94 points. In the playoffs, Saryarka swept Kulager Petropavlovsk and Nomad on its way to the final, but Torpedo was halted in five games by Arlan in the semi-finals.
That set up a battle of youth versus experience to decide the outcome of the first Pro Hokei Ligasy campaign. Arlan, champion in 2018 and three times runner-up between 2014 and 2016, had the oldest and most experienced roster in the competition. Saryarka, with an average age of 23.69, was one of the youngest.
At first, it looked as though seniority would prevail. The best-of-seven series started in Karaganda and Arlan produced two road wins, but the 0-2 scoreline did not fully tell the story of a couple of one-goal games in which Saryarka had twice as many shots on goal.
“We were hobbled by our failure to take our chances,” admitted 22-year-old forward Stepan Grymzin after those opening games. “Everybody worked hard, everyone wants to win. There’s still time, we can work on our mistakes. We’re only thinking about victory, this series has just started.”
Saryarka’s head coach, Latvian Leonids Tambijevs, reflected on his team’s sluggish start. “The two games were almost copies of one another,” he said. “Arlan made the most of its chances. We created a huge number of scoring chances but our final shot let us down. Two games in a row, we outshot them 2-to-1 but could not turn that into goals.”
The big turnaroundIt began to change in Kokshetau. The games were still tight, but this time it was Saryarka edging the verdict. A 3-2 victory in game three was followed by the visitor jumping to a 3-0 lead in game four, only to be pegged back by Arlan as the game went into overtime. Goalie Nikita Boryadin, one of the stars of the series, made several big stops in the extras before Vladislav Rybakov snapped a 3-3 tie in the 77th minute. Now the series was level, and the momentum was with Karaganda.
“Today we went out determined to win at all costs,” said forward Sergei Golodnyuk. “We knew that the winner here would go into the next game on top. Now we’re back in this series and we can go home happy.”
Back on home ice, Saryarka produced another overtime win, Golodnyuk himself settling the outcome after a 1-1 tie in regulation. That was Golodnyuk’s eighth goal of the play-offs, making him the leading goalscorer and placing him second in the scoring race behind Arlan’s Vadim Berdnikov (12 points from 17 games).
Then it was back to Kokshetau for game six and, after 50 goalless minutes, tallies from Ivan Bezrukov and Nikita Anokhovsky secured a 2-0 victory – the first shut-out of the final series and the first game settled by more than one goal – to seal the championship.
Tambijevs, who previously led the club to the VHL title in 2019, paid tribute to his players after they lifted the trophy. “I’d like to thank you all for your character,” he said in the locker room, before drinking champagne from the cup. “That’s the most important thing. We played so many tough games, but we stayed patient and we kept working. We went behind, we came back into it. We earned this victory and we showed the character that will take us further.
“You’re all young players and you have a big future ahead of you. I can say that with confidence.”
Boyarkin impressesOne of the youngsters earmarked for a bright future is goalie Nikita Boyarkin. The 22-year-old is a graduate of the Karaganda hockey school and this was his breakout year in adult hockey. It could hardly have gone better for him. That shutout in the decisive game was his third in the playoffs and his 14th overall this season. Ever present in post season, he stopped 94.9% of shots for a GAA of 1.28 as he improved on his regular season form and backstopped his team to glory.
Now Boyarkin is in contention for a place on Kazakhstan’s roster at the upcoming World Championship in Riga. His prospects can only be enhanced by his performance in the Kazakh playoffs, which kept him in prime playing condition while many potential candidates were out of action.