Mogo’s golden mojo
by Andy Potts|10 APR 2019
photo: LHF
HK Mogo is Latvia’s champion for the second time in its short history. The Riga-based club, which was founded in 2014, produced a repeat of its playoff final series against Kurbads in its inaugural campaign, winning in six games to to make it two titles in five seasons.
It was a hard-fought series between two teams that have regularly contested Latvia’s top prize in recent years. Kurbads was playing its sixth consecutive grand final and its third against Mogo. The teams had won one each of the previous two clashes. Mogo, meanwhile, has topped the regular season table in all but one of its campaigns: this was a clash between consistently successful outfits. Not surprisingly, then, there was little to choose between the teams. Mogo, top of the pile once again in regular season, started with home advantage and reeled off two victories – but edged a tight 3-2 verdict in game one before needing a shoot-out to settle game two. Kurbads responded with two home wins of its own to square the series before Mogo moved back in front with an overtime triumph on home ice.
That gave Igors Smirnovs’ team the chance to wrap it up in game six if it could manage the first road win of the series. However, Kurbads was not about to give up without a fight and took the lead seconds before the first intermission when Marcis Zembergs converted after Lauris Rancevs stripped Mogo goalie Henrijs Ancs of the puck and presented his team-mate with a chance to score into an empty net.
Mogo recovered in the second period through Kaspars Saulietis, a vastly experienced player in the KHL and at international level. He was left unattended in the Kurbads zone to tie the scores in the 34th minute. There was no further scoring in regulation, although two other well-known names in Latvian hockey, Janis Sprukts and Martins Cipulis, had good chances for Kurbads. In overtime, Cipulis was denied by Ancs once again and soon afterwards Mogo grabbed the championship goal. Deivids Sarkanis passed from behind the net and Karlis Ozolins tucked away the decisive marker to send the trophy to Mogo.
Saulietis was crowned MVP and finished as the leading post-season goalscorer with eight tallies. Team-mate Rihards Marenis, who also featured for Dinamo Riga in this season’s KHL, was the leading play-off scorer with 12 (5+7). Sprukts and Cipulis finished with 11 points apiece for Kurbads, tied with Saulietis.
Although the Latvian championship is not one of the most prestigious in Europe – the KHL’s Dinamo Riga is the established flagship of the country’s domestic hockey – the final series featured a few names that might resonate beyond the Riga city limits. Sprukts played 13 NHL games for the Panthers back in 2006-07, while his Kurbads team-mate Konstantin Pushkaryov had 17 outings for the LA Kings as well as plenty of international action for Kazakhstan. Mogo includes two Olympians in its roster: defenceman Agris Saviels, 37, and forward Vladimirs Mamonovs, 38, both played five games for Latvia in Torino.
Mogo’s success brought Smirnovs his first Latvian title as coach – 16 years after being named Latvian coach of the year in 2002-03. The 49-year-old has worked exclusively in his homeland and was head coach of Latvia’s U18 roster in 2016-17.
As a reward for its domestic success, Mogo is now eligible to return to international competition as Latvia’s representative in the Continental Cup. In 2015-16 the team won through its second-round group against opponents from Spain, Slovenia and Hungary but fell at the semi-final stage when it failed to win a game against HC Asiago, Herning Blue Fox and Yertis Pavlodar in Group D.