Sokil claims 14th Ukrainian title
by Andy POTTS|03 APR 2023
Sokil Kyiv is Ukraine’s champion for the 14th time after edging a nerve-jangling decider in the final against HK Kremenchuk. The two teams were locked at 2-2 in the best-of-five series and the showdown in Central Ukraine went to double overtime before veteran Sergi Babynets grabbed the winning goal on 96:18.

Babynets’ tally was the only goal of an epic encounter, with the two goalies in superb form all evening. It arrived after Kremenchuk’s Hleb Varava struggled to deal with the puck in front of his own net while under pressure from Volodymir Cherdak. The Kyiv forward forced a turnover, exchanged passes with Babynets and fired a shot against the post before Babynets slotted the rebound into an empty net, beating Kirill Kucher at the 53rd attempt. As the home players slumped to the ice in defeat, Babynets raced away to join the jubilant celebrations of his team-mates.

It was fitting that Babynets scored the golden goal to settle the longest game in the history of Ukraine’s playoff finals. Babynets himself set a record for the most appearances in Ukrainian championship hockey when he overtook Ivan Savchenko’s 387 outings in game four of the final series. The 35-year-old’s 389th game proved to be one of the most memorable as his clinched the eighth championship of a career that also took in spells with Donbass, Bilyy Bars Bila Tserkva and Mariupol as well as time in Slovakia.

Sokil’s goalie Bogdan Dyachenko also had a big say in winning his team the cup. He made 48 saves in a long evening, including one huge contribution to deny Bogdan Serednytsky’s 50th-minute penalty shot. That made it a triumphant end to a sometimes-difficult season for the 24-year-old Ukrainian international. He began the campaign with Kharkiv, where his GAA of 5.25 through 18 games was far from medal-winning form. However, a loan move to Kyiv during the regular season revitalized Dyachenko. The GAA dropped to 1.71 through 11 games before the start of the championship run.

Long before overtime, the game might have been settled in the final moments of the second period. The hooter sounded three seconds early and, after protests from the Sokil bench, the teams returned to play the “missing” time before the intermission. It was an incident-packed passage of play, with Kremenchuk seeing two attempts to clear the puck charged down before Cherdak fired into the home net. However, a video review confirmed that the puck crossed the line after the 40-minute mark and before play resumed in the third period, the officials wiped off the goal.

That decision was loudly cheered by a sell-out crowd at Kremenchuk’s Iceberg Arena. The presence of those spectators was also noteworthy. Ukraine’s championship began behind closed doors and the opening game of the season was interrupted by an air-raid warning. Fans were back at games in time for the playoffs, but Ukrainian hockey continues under unique and challenging circumstances. Moments before Babynets’ goal, the arena announcer told fans that if a third period of overtime was needed, it would start at 13:00 the following day to comply with the curfew in the central Ukrainian city.

While Sokil, Ukraine’s most titled club, was celebrating its latest trophy, Kremenchuk was left to reflect on what might have been. Olexandr Savytskyi’s team topped the regular season standings and defeated Legion Kalush in the semi-final as they sought to add to their 2020 championship triumph. Against Sokil, Kremenchuk won the opening game of the series before the capital club hit back to lead 2-1. However, in game four, a pair of goals from Sviatoslav Tymchenko helped secure a 4-2 victory that set up Friday’s decider.

As well as presenting gold and silver medals to Sokil and Kremenchuk respectively, the Ukrainian Hockey Federation also announced its individual prizewinners for the 2022/23 season. Babynets picked up the playoff MVP prize, as well as the best forward award for the campaign. Kremenchuk captain Vitali Lyalka was named MVP for the regular season after scoring 58 (31+27) points in 30 games. Dnipro Kherson, third in the regular season and defeated in the semi-final against Sokil, had three individual awards: best goalie Eduard Zakharenko, best defender Yevhenii Ratushnyi and best coach Oleksander Bobkin. Legion’s Andri Kryvonozhkyn was named best young player.