Nomad Astana forward Nikita Mikhailis and Bretton Stamler of host Ritten Sport battle for the puck. Both teams advance to the Continental Cup Final as the top-two ranked teams of Group E. Photo: Max Pattis
Pair clinch progress in Continental Cup
Last-day victories in Group E lift Nomad Astana and host Ritten Sport to compete for the Continental Cup winners' plate in the final tournament.
The reigning champions of Kazakhstan, Nomad Astana, marked their inaugural appearance in the Continental Cup with a top-place finish of Group E. In the closing game of the tournament, hosts Ritten Sport rose to the occasion with a spirited performance to leapfrog Hungary's DVTK Jegesmedvek Miskolc in the standings courtesy of a fine 3-1 win to progress into their second consecutive appearance at the final stage of the competition.
Yunost Minsk and the Sheffield Steelers, who progressed from Group D played in Danish city of Rungsted, now await in the final round of the Continental Cup played between 12-14 January 2018 on a venue yet to be confirmed.
“All three games were tough for us. This is a huge experience for Nomad. With such international tournaments we will only become better. All games were tense and exciting,” said Nomad head coach Yuri Mikhailis.
Instrumental in Nomad Astana’s success was their prolific first line. Team captain Ilya Kovzalov, Yaroslav Yevdokimov and Nikita Mikhailis, who recently joined from KHL team Barys Astana, added offensive prowess with the troika finishing joint-top of the Group E scoring charts. At the other end Dmitri Malgin’s solid display between the pipes saw the team from the Kazakh capital only concede three goals in as many games.
Despite finishing top of the standings in Group E, the newcomers Nomad Astana overcame a patchy start to life in the Continental Cup. Losing their opener after penalty shots to a defensively sound Miskolc team, they got into their stride during their second game.
Locking horns with the hosts Ritten Sport, the Kazakhs had gone behind after Ritten's Oscar Ahlstrom had skilfully tipped a Bretton Stamler feed past Malgin at 8:28. Nomad Astana replied soon after as their lethal first line introduced themselves on the scoresheet as Yevdokimov coolly slotted home a Mikhailis backhand pass to go level at 11:05.
Outshot 8-12 in the second period and with Ritten failing to convert on their chances and superior puck possession, Astana showed flashes of brilliance to convert when the opportunity arose. A 2-on-1 saw Alikhan Asetov feed 18-year-old Ivan Vereshagin on a two-on-one that finished high on the glove side of Ritten goalie Patrick Killeen as Astana went in front. With 4:57 left of the middle frame and the Kazakhs on the power play, their lead was stretched to 3-1. Yevdokimov’s one-timer from a cross-ice pass by Mikhailis was deflected into the Ritten net much to the dismay of the home crowd inside Arena Ritten.
When Simon Kostner failed to covert inside the first minute of the final period, it was to be a night to forget for Ritten. Racking up four straight minor penalty calls disrupted any realistic chance of an Italian fightback as Nomad Astana held out for their first win of the tournament.
An affiliate of the country’s KHL contestants, Barys Astana, and changing to its current name in 2013, Nomad Astana clinched their place in the final round with a clinical performance as a hapless Grenoble Bruleurs de Loups squad was blanked 4-0. Roman Rachinski had burst through the French rearguards to open the scoring with a shorthanded first-period goal. Working on a one-man advantage, Mikhailis once again picked out Yevdokimov as the Kazakhs doubled their lead at 6:55 of the middle frame.
With Grenoble heads down after Pierre-Charles Hordelalay had missed a penalty shot for the French at 7:49 of the third period, Asetov pounced on lax defending by Aziz Baazzi for 3-0. With 4:40 left of the game, Mikhailis added gloss to the victory when he closed the scoring on 5-on-3 finding a way past Lukas Horak’s right post from a tight angle.
“At the beginning they were strong and we had to defend well. But we stuck together as team until the end,” said Asetov. “The tournament was interesting for us because we haven’t played an international game for a long time.”
While Nomad Astana celebrated progress, a second straight chance for Continental Cup glory will come Ritten’s way. The hosts, who had blanked Grenoble 2-0 in their opener, now looked to bounce back from their defeat to Astana as they went head to head with surprise package Miskolc in the closing game of the tournament. Trailing the Hungarians by a point going into the game, the first frame saw Daniel Tudin force a fine save by Miskolc’s Attila Adorjan when clear on goal at 6:32, while at the other end Killeen denied Attila Pavuk with 4:26 left. The cheer rose from the 1,237 inside the Arena Ritten with 2:53 left of the frame as their home favourites broke the deadlock. Miskolc’s Peter Sakaris was serving a tripping call when Thomas Spinell picked out an onrushing Tommaso Traversa in the slot, who unleashed a shot past Adorjan on his blocker side.
An enthralling second frame saw the game open up with chances at both ends and Ritten’s second line enjoying a fine game. First Traversa flew past Ryan Ruikka to force Adorjan to a fine save five minutes into the middle frame before Thomas Spinell went close. As Miskolc pressed for the equalizer while on power play, livewire Spinell snapped up the puck as Miskolc’s Balazs Lada failed to control the puck, then charged through but was denied twice in front of Adorjan’s net. With Miskolc winning the shots 11-9, they were to rue missing opportunities with Nikandrosz Galanisz going close three times on the power play.
Needing a goal to keep their dreams of a place in the final four alive, the third period became an uphill struggle for the Hungarians. Ritten, which last January hosted the 2017 IIHF Continental Cup Final, needed only 2:10 of the final frame to double their lead. Kostner was the instigator from the right boards, with Oscar Ahlstrom deking Adorjan for the 2-0 goal. Penalty calls against Miskolc’s Galanisz and Kulmala in quick succession disrupted any chances of a Hungarian fightback. Working on a five-on-three, Ritten scored their third power play goal of the evening. Spinell picked out Roland Hofer, who boomed a one-timer past Adorjan to make it 3-0 with 5:30 left to play. Miskolc’s Sakaris sneaked up at far post with 53 seconds to convert on a Rasmus Kulmala feed to spoil Killeen’s bid for a shutout but not Ritten’s win.
Despite missing out on progress, Miskolc can take great credit from their highly disciplined performances and watchful defence. A sterling effort in their opener had seen them beat Nomad Astana in shootout with Adorjan saving all penalty shots. In their second game against the luckless Grenoble. Mikael Tisell's men saw Galanisz equalize before veteran Janos Vas surged through from the left on a Jarkko Leppanen pass to trundle home the overtime winner in their second game.
High-flying and currently top of the standings in the Ligue Magnus, Grenoble finished bottom of the standings. The “Wolf Burners” outshot all of their three opponents in Ritten, but missed a vital scoring touch. Having missed penalty shots both against Ritten and Astana, they finished with a paltry point and a Baazzi power-play goal against Miskolc being their only goal scored in their three outings in South Tyrol.