The Kazakhs secured qualification with overtime victories in their opening two games and went on to clinch top spot with a 3-0 success against HK Gomel of Belarus. The Belarusians also qualify for January’s Super Final after taking second place with two regulation time wins before Sunday’s defeat.
Gomel, a beneficiary of Yunost Minsk’s Continental Cup triumph last season, entered the competition after claiming third place in the Belarusian championship. Gold medallist Neman Grodno and runner-up Yunost Minsk as last Continental Cup champion both went to the Champions Hockey League, giving Gomel the chance to try and keep this trophy in Belarus for another season. After two game days in Lyon, the Belarusians were favourites to top the group. A 6-2 win against Latvian champion Kurbads Riga was followed with a 2-1 success against host club Lyon Lions to give Gomel a two-point lead at the top of the table.
Arlan, by contrast, tied twice before defeating Lyon 2-1 in a shootout and Kurbads 4-3 in overtime. However, in Sunday’s table-topping showdown the Kazakhs made no mistake. A whirlwind start saw Dmitri Potaichuk and Ilya Gulyakov open a 2-0 lead inside eight-and-a-half minutes. Ivan Kiselov added a third early in the second period and the game was settled. Gomel dominated possession in the closing stages but for all their territorial advantage the Belarusians struggled to create clear-cut chances. Arlan goalie Mikhail Demidov turned away 22 shots on his net to claim a shutout.
Head coach Vladimir Kapulovski was little more forthcoming than his team’s defence in his assessment of the tournament. “A coach can never be entirely happy,” he told Shaiba.kz. “There’s always something to work on.” In similar vein, he refused to be drawn on the prospect of a rematch with Gomel in January’s final tournament, when the two teams from the East will join the Belfast Giants and GKS Katowice in the final four. “It’s too early to make any predictions. We’ll watch the videos, try to learn and we’ll go out and play our hockey.”
Goalie Demidov, whose shutout earned him the man-of-the-match award, was more talkative. “It feels great,” said the 32-year-old, donning a traditional Kazakh hat and clutching a bottle of the local vintage. “But this is only the first step. We still have work to do. We can celebrate tonight but we need to work to go further [in the tournament].
“This was a game to decide the group and everyone did a professional job. The guys helped me today and throughout the tournament, everyone played great.”
And that bottle of wine? The prize for his game-winning shutout. “What gift would you give from France? A bottle of wine, of course. Obviously, there’s no such thing as a bad bottle of French wine but as far as I’ve seen, this is one of the best!”
Sunday’s other game saw Kurbads and Lyon battle it out for third place and the Latvians prevailed by the odd goal in five. Eliezer Sherbatov, one of the leaders for the Israeli national team, had a goal and an assist in that one and finished the tournament as leading scorer with 5 (3+2) points. The 27-year-old forward, who played in the KHL with Slovan Bratislava last season, came to Riga last week after having played for the Berlin Blackjacks in the largely Quebec-based LNAH that ceased operations on 9 November. Gomel’s Yevgeni Solomonov tied on five points but had one goal fewer.
That left the Lyon Lions propping up the group, much to the disappointment of defenceman Jules Breton. “Frustration is the word that comes to mind,” he told the club’s official site. “I think we could have gone to the final, we showed that we can play at that level. It’s not like we were outclassed in every game, and that’s really frustrating. We have good chances on the power play in all three games but we couldn’t take them. That’s what we have to work on in the future.”
Click here to access the game data on the tournament page.
The final phase of the Continental Cup will be played 11-13 January. Arlan and Gomel will be joined by the Belfast Giants and GKS Katowice, who emerged from a three-way tie at the top of Group E on Saturday. The venue will be chosen in the near future.