Ritten Sport and Nomad Astana already met in the preliminary round of the 2018 IIHF Continental Cup. Photo: Max Pattis
Four-team Continental Cup Final starts
The IIHF Continental Cup entered its third decade that culminates with this week’s final tournament in the Belarusian capital of Minsk.
Host club and top seed Yunost Minsk, Kazakh champion Nomad Astana, Italian champion Ritten Sport and Great Britain’s Sheffield Steelers battle for the winners’ plate of the four-stage competition that started in September in Belgrade with the lower-seeded entries and this weekend with the best four teams in competition.
The four teams qualified through the preliminary round and will battle for the title in the other European club competition behind the Champions Hockey League, for which one team could qualify as the winner and succeed the Nottingham Panthers, who became the first British Continental Cup winner and were the surprise team in this season’s CHL. Like Nottingham the new Continental Cup winner could potentially play in the CHL next season subject to approval by the CHL Board.
The tournament will take place during three days from Friday to Sunday in a round-robin tournament played at the 9,600-seat Chizhovka Arena. The venue originally built for the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship has become the home of Yunost Minsk. The most successful club of the Belarusian league since independence has won seven national championships – and the Continental Cup in 2007 and 2011, the last time as host.
Let’s have a look at the four teams.
Yunost Minsk (Belarus)
Last year Yunost Minsk lost the final series of the Belarusian Extraliga against Neman Grodno and missed out on taking Belarus’ entry in the Champions Hockey League. Now they can qualify through another way and win the third Continental Cup title in club history.
The club is currently in good shape and leads the league with a 26-1-3 record and three points ahead of Shakhtyor Solidogrsk. It stands out in particular for offensive power with 155 goals from 30 games – second-ranked Shakhtyor follows with 107. Five of the top-six scorers in the Belarusian lead are Yunost players led by Maxim Parfeyevets with 25 goals and 49 points. Viktor Turkin, Artyom Demkov, Alexei Yefimenko, Andri Mikhnov and Pavel Razvadovski are the other Yunost players with 30 points or more.
The club showed its good shape also in the last round of the Continental Cup by winning all Group D games in Denmark starting with a shocking 7-1 win against eventually second-ranked Sheffield Steelers and ending with tighter victories against Latvian champion Kurbads Riga and Danish host Rungsted.
Like in the past the club mostly counts on players from Belarus with a few players also coming from neighbouring Russia and Ukraine. Slovenian national team defenceman Klemen Pretnar and former St. Louis Blues forward Daniel Corso are the two exceptions. Corso is already in his fourth season with the club after first coming to Belarus in 2010 to play KHL hockey for Dynamo Minsk.
Since the last round Yunost had some roster changes by adding defenceman Yevgeni Nogachyov and boosting its offence with KHL players Alexander Kogalev, Alexei Skabelka and Yevgeni Skachkov.
Nomad Astana (Kazakhstan)
Kazakh champion Nomad Astana won Group E in Italy despite starting with a shootout loss to Hungarian underdog Miskolc but then beat eventually second-ranked host Ritten Sport 3-1 and blanked former finalist Grenoble Bruleures de Loups from France 4-0.
The Kazakh league has been developing and expanding to new areas in recent years and also lured professional players from anywhere between Russia and Canada to the country. As farm team of Kazakhstan’s KHL club Barys Astana, the “nomads” are mostly focusing on players from Kazakhstan and also have a couple of Russian-born players on their roster.
The partnership with Barys Astana provides Nomad depth even though it means players are not always available depending on the roster situation in the KHL. But Nomad has had a strong season with a 29-9 record, good enough for first place in the Kazakh Championship with four points ahead of Arlan Kokshetau.
Past teams from Kazakhstan playing internationally shone with their top lines. In Kazakhstan Nomad shines with depth. The best scorer, Alikhan Asetov, is eighth in league scoring with 10 goals and 27 points from 32 games despite Noman scoring the most goals in the league, 137, while also allowing the fewest, 61.
Among the most skilled players are some who are just part-time with Nomad but also get ice time in the KHL such as forwards Dmitri Grents, Dmitri Gurkov and Nikita Mikhailis. On the other hand number-one goalie Dmitri Malgin is missing on the roster and serves as backup at Barys Astana.
Ritten Sport (Italy)
Last year’s Continental Cup Final host Ritten Sport qualified for the final again. The club from South Tyrol located on the Ritten Plateau up of Bolzano has become Italy’s new force since Bolzano left for the Austrian-based cross-border league EBEL and has won three out of four Italian championships in the last four years including back-to-back titles recently.
While Ritten qualified by winning the Italian championship, the club also plays in another, 2016-launched cross-border league, the Alps Hockey League with teams from Austria, Italy and Slovenia and the “Buam” (boys in the local German dialect) lead it four points ahead of Italian rival Asiago and Slovenian club Acroni Jesenice with a 24-7 record. They scored most goals (126) and conceded fewest (58). Despite that it’s team play and depth that are the strength compared to other teams. The club’s Swedish top scorer Oscar Ahlstrom is ranked 16th in league scoring with 16 goals and 34 points from 30 games. His twin brother Victor Ahlstrom and Italian national team forward Simon Kostner follow with 30 points and shortly behind other national team players such as Alex Frei, Daniel Tudin and defencemen Andreas Lutz and Christian Borgatello.
Ritten also has four North American import players including Patrick Killeen, who has had a good season in the Ritten net with a 93.8 save percentage in the AHL and a 95.1 save percentage in the preliminary round of the Continental Cup where Ritten qualified on home ice with wins against Grenoble (2-0) and Miskolc (3-1) while only losing to Nomad.
Last year in the final tournament on home ice it didn’t work for the team as they wanted. After starting with a 3-2 shootout victory against Beibarys Atyrau, the Italians lost to Odense and Nottingham and ended up in last place. Will it work out better on Minsk’s ice?
Sheffield Steelers (Great Britain)
The Nottingham Panthers wrote history one year ago as the first British team to win the IIHF Continental Cup and continued to surprise with wins in the Champions Hockey League. And now the Sheffield Steelers qualified for the final tournament as well and have the chance to repeat.
The way to Minsk was anything but easy though. After losing the first preliminary-round to final-round host Yunost Minsk 7-1 it didn’t look like Sheffield would be one of the two teams from that group to make it to the final. A 5-4 shootout victory against host Rungsted gave hope but it was another lost point as well. But since the other two teams behind Yunost also had mixed results, the spot was still at grab for anybody on the last day and the Steelers got the necessary 4-2 win against Latvian champion Kurbads Riga to advance.
The Steelers came to Minsk with almost the identical roster. American forward Eric Neiley is new on the team having joined from the ECHL’s Adirondack Thunder recently while John Armstrong is out with an injury.
As with most teams in the British EIHL the Steelers heavily count on imports. Seven players on the 21-man roster are British including Robert Dowd. The national team forward leads the Steelers in scoring with 14 goals and 31 points but league-wide that’s 28th place. Nine imports come from North America and five from continental Europe including Latvian Ervins Mustukovs, who is second in EIHL save percentage with 92.2.