Yunost Minsk forward Konstantin Zakharov celebrates a goal against the Sheffield Steelers. The two teams finished first and second in the Group D and will advance to the Continental Cup Final. Photo: Jan Korsgaard
Steelers battle back for second spot
Yunost Minsk and the Sheffield Steelers are qualified for the final stage of the IIHF Continental Cup.
Yunost Minsk won the tournament and the Sheffield Steelers join them into the final round as second-ranked team. Few would have anticipated that outcome after the first game of the tournament.
Friday’s action began with Yunost powering to a 7-1 victory over the Steelers. That paved the way for the Belarusians to sweep Group D, following up with wins over Latvian champion Kurbads Riga (4-2) and Danish host Rungsted Ishockey (2-1). Before tournament, Yunost forward Maxim Parfeyevets identified the British playoff winner as the team to beat; the opening game suggested Sheffield would do well to avoid embarrassment.
But Sheffield, looking to match the success of Britain’s Nottingham Panthers in this tournament last year, was about to follow a difficult path to the final four. On Saturday, the Steelers trailed 0-3 against Rungsted, then fell 3-4 behind after a spirited fightback. A late equalizer from Levi Nelson sent the game to a shootout, and Matt Marquardt potted the decisive marker. Now it all hinged on Sunday’s showdown with Kurbads, with the winner set to claim second place.
The Latvians, who had to qualify for this stage of the tournament, arrived with an 8-4 success against Rungsted and a 4-2 defeat at the hands of Yunost. But the loss of forward Martins Cipulis, ejected from the game in the 10th minute for boarding after a bad hit on Nelson, took its toll on Kurbads. Sheffield scored three on that major penalty as Jonas Westerling, Mathieu Roy found the net before Nelson proved his fitness with the third. Kurbads still had time for a short-handed goal from Gatis Gricinskis, and got back to 3-2 with Martins Gipters’ power-play marker late in the second, but the initiative was with the Brits after an opening frame littered with penalties.
Kurbads looked for a way back into the game, but both teams improved their discipline and goals were hard to come by in the middle stanza. As the men from Riga piled on the pressure in the third, they were defied by one of their own: Sheffield’s goalie, Ervins Mustukovs, was born in the Latvian capital, and he kept the Latvians at bay, blocking a flurry of shots during a power play midway through the final period. A late penalty against Nelson gave Kurbads one last chance, with 67 seconds of 6-on-4 play to try to salvage the game. The Steelers defended bravely, and wrapped up the win on a Ben O’Connor empty-net effort to spark loud celebrations from the sizeable traveling contingent from Yorkshire.
Head coach Paul Thompson, now in his fifth Continental Cup campaign, reckoned this was the toughest group he’d faced. “There’s some seriously good hockey clubs there,” he told the Steelers website. “Minsk is as good as any team we’ve played, including the Champions League. We’ll meet them again in the finals – hopefully in Sheffield – and we’ll try to show them a bit of what we’re all about. But Riga are a good team, Rungsted are a good team.”
Forward Robert Dowd, a seasoned international campaigner for Team GB as well as the Steelers, admitted that the opening defeat was tough to take. “After that first game, you start to doubt, but we had a tough travel day and the whole set-up wasn’t ideal for us,” he said. “It just shows what a good night’s sleep and some good food can do for a team!
“Minsk’s a very, very good side, you can’t take that away from them. I think they beat Frolunda in the Champions League last season, so they’re no mugs. But I think it will be a different game next time in the finals.”
While the Steelers did it the hard way, Yunost comfortably fulfilled its objective in Denmark. The Belarusian team arrived confident that it could compete and determined to help Belarus secure a second Champions League spot for next season. “I think the Continental Cup is really important, because the prize is a second place for Belarus in the Champions League,” head coach Mikhail Zakharov told the club website prior to the tournament. “You can see how the Brits have benefitted from having two teams playing there this season. For us, there’s no other way.”
Although hampered by injuries, Yunost could call on several players with experience of playing in the KHL, or the old Russian Superliga (the KHL forerunner). Defenceman Oleg Goroshko, who celebrated his 28th birthday with Sunday’s 2-1 win over Rungsted, was one of a contingent of Dynamo Minsk alumni; Daniel Corso, Alexei Yefimenko and Alexander Kogalev have also played for the Bison, while experienced forward Andrei Mikhnov includes stints at Ak Bars and Neftekhimik on his resume.
After topping Group D in style, hopes in Minsk are now high that January will see Yunost claim its third Continental Cup, matching the achievements of 2007 and 2011. For the Steelers, second place means a return to the final four after it reached the same stage in 2010.
On an individual level, Yunost dominated the scoring charts. Viktor Turkin’s seven-point haul was the best in the group, while Kogalev was the leading goalscorer with four. Dmitri Milchakov was the most effective goalie in a high-scoring contest, with a GAA of 1.5 and an SVS of 93.4%.
Kurbads Riga took third place in the tournament thanks to its 8-4 victory against winless hosts Rungsted.
The final tournament will be played from 12th to 14th January 2018 at the venue of one of the finalists that will be determined soon. Yunost Minsk (Belarus), Nomad Astana (Kazakhstan), Ritten Sport (Italy) and the Sheffield Steelers (Great Britain) are the finalists. Nomad Astana won the other group ahead of host Ritten. A recap from the other group follows on IIHF.com.