How will we get there? Turns out a local taxi, or perhaps a train, they aren’t as bad as you think? You could maybe even drive there if you like. Many people lament the Glider buses, but as it happens they run right past the rink.
The Belfast Giants are on their way this weekend to their first appearance in a European final since the Continental Cup Superfinal in 2003. Their travel plans were kindly simplified by the IIHF at the end of November when the Giants were awarded the tournament, having been deemed the best option available to host the final out of the remaining teams in the competition. Giants fans may have been hoping for a trip to mainland Europe, having already hosted the semi-final in Belfast, but a chance at winning silverware on home ice is rare, and rarer still is the chance to raise a European trophy on the ice in Belfast.
Four teams have qualified for the final, which will play out over a three day round robin format from 11th-13th January 2019. The two finalists from the Belfast group, the Giants and Poland’s GKS Katowice, will be joined by the two qualifiers from the French semi-final held in Lyon, HC Gomel of the Belarusian Extraliga, and Arlan Kokshetau, playing out of the Kazakhstan Vyschaya Liga. Kokshetau finished top of the French group in November, defeating Gomel 3-0 in the last game of the tournament to book their place in the final (1).
As with the semi-final, I’ve looked at the four teams’ form coming into the final, and watched through games and highlights to pick out who could be the key players for each team, how each team likes to play, and how they might fare in the tournament.
Arlan Kokshetau qualified for the Continental Cup by winning their first ever championship last season. They currently sit top of the Kazakh Vyschaya Liga, three points ahead of Ertis Pavlodar at the time of writing. Two of the team’s forwards also sit atop the league’s scoring charts, centre Ivan Kiselyev scoring 38 points in 38 games so far this season, and left winger Dmitri Potaichuk scoring 33 points (2). Kiselyov in particular has a dangerous shot, and looks to be someone the other three teams will have to keep an eye on throughout the weekend. They score many and concede few, averaging less than two goals against per game, but a big reason for their goal difference being +63 at present is the fact that the league is top-heavy in quality, with HK Astana only winning one league game so far this season, and Gornyak Rudny only winning nine.
Kokshetau seem to play the more up tempo style of hockey of the two qualifiers from Lyon. They play fairly directly up the ice, mostly looking to pass to the forwards instead of activating their defencemen. They look to breakout down the right side of the ice more often than not, passing to the winger with a center skating through the middle as support. They have an abundance of left-handed defensemen from what I have watched, which may be why they breakout in this fashion, so an outside-in forecheck from the right wing may be one way to force the defence onto their backhand and disrupt their breakout. The only right-handed defenceman I’ve seen was Alexander Syrei, who may not be eligible for the competition due to having played against Kokshetau for HK Gomel in the semi-final group stage. I would also expect to see the Arlan forwards trying to shoot as often as possible, as many of their wingers seem to play on their off-wing (3).
Arlan look to forecheck quite aggressively with typically two forecheckers, and they often have three men hold the blueline when defending the rush in a left wing lock, occasionally pulling a defenceman deeper into their zone. Kokshetau’s goaltending in tandem with their defence is a big reason why they sit at the top of the standings. Ivan Poloshkov is nominally Kokshetau’s number one goaltender, sitting with an impressive 1.38 GAA over twenty games with seventeen wins and four shutouts on the season, but he has split the season with Mikhail Demidov, who has eight wins on fifteen games with two shutouts of his own.
Other players to look out for are Alexander Nesterov, who has spent the last ten seasons playing in the KHL, and Eliezer Sherbatov, a skilful high energy winger who just recently signed for the club on 12th December. Defencemen Yakov Seleznyev and Vladimir Malevich both look to shoot from the point, Malevich often looking for shooting lanes on the second powerplay unit.
Arlan look to be a dangerous side for their rivals, they have speed and skill throughout the forward lines, and the defence seem calm and patient with the puck. The schedule for the weekend pits Belfast against Kokshetau in the last game of the tournament on Sunday, and this could very well be the game that decides the outright winners of the Continental Cup.
Dmitri Potaichuk – Ivan Kiselyev – Konstantin Savenkov
Denis Klemeshov – Yevgeni Gasnikov -Alexander Nesterov
Vadim Yermolayev – Vadim Berdnikov (A) – Eliezer Sherbatov
Nikita Bazhenov – Anton Petrov – Bari Saburov
Sergei Yegorov (A) – Vladislav Kolesnikov (C)/Anton Kazantsev
Yakov Seleznyev – Aleksandr Syrei*
Vladimir Malevich – Stanislav Borovikov
HK Gomel from Belarus qualified for the tournament after finishing third in league competition last year. Both Belarusian champions Neman Grodno and runners-up Yunost Minsk entered the Champions Hockey League this season, Minsk earning their berth in the CHL by way of winning the Continental Cup in 2018. Gomel lie fifth in the Belarusian Extraliga at present, the 2017 Belarusian Cup winners being unable to find consistent form of late, though they have beaten league leaders Minsk after penalties recently.
Gomel have struggled to score goals in league play, only scoring 76 times through 36 games at the time of writing (4). The team do not have any players in the top twenty in league point scoring, and have lost their two top scorers on offense and defense respectively in the past month; Alexander Zhidkikh moving to league leaders Yunost Minsk on 28th November, and defenseman Aleksandr Yeronov moving to Katowice’s rivals GKS Tychy on 23rd December. Gomel will also be without two more of their key players through the first half of the season, as Igor Revenko hasn’t played a game since 16th October, and Aleksandr Syrei hasn’t suited up since 24th November, since signing with Kokshetau.
They do have Evgenyi Solomonov, a skilled winger with nineteen points on the year, and Yevgeny Khuzeyev, a sniping left winger who plays on his off wing and is their current top goalscorer with ten goals on the season. Beyond these two players in the current Gomel line-up, there aren’t many players scoring at more than a point every two games. Gomel’s special teams play flags up this issue, as the team’s powerplay is only scoring on 18.25% of it’s powerplay time.
The team often seem to have an aggressive penalty kill, pressing their opponents’ powerplay in the zone, and have scored four shorthanded goals on the season, but the PK is not playing as the coach would like overall, killing penalties at a mid-table 80.42% of the time. The team generally seems to have difficulty in clearing their defensive zone, since a lot of the goals that I have seen conceded at home have come from Gomel’s opposition pinching up to the half-wall and turning the puck over. This trend ran through several different game highlights, suggesting it may be a successful strategy to create a lot of offensive zone pressure against the Belarusians.
Their goaltending is split between Alexei Merzlov and Roman Bobariko. Both goaltenders have respectable numbers on the season, earning .919 and .916 save percentages respectively at the time of writing, with Bobariko taking more of the starts in the past month. The team favours a defensive 1-3-1 system to balance their lack of scoring, suggesting they will look to keep their games in Belfast tight to have a chance of success. With the offensive power on show from the other three teams, Gomel’s goaltenders will likely have to steal games if the Belarusians want to lift the cup. I see the Belarusian side as the underdogs in the final, but a dogged defensive performance could still trip one of the more fancied teams up.
Yevgeny Khuzeyev – Nikolai Suslo -Evgeny Solomonov
Pavel Musienko – Andrei Kolosov – Denis Zaichik
Dmitri Koloyshkin – Andrei Pereguda – Pavel Golubich
Nikita Yurchenko – Ilya Zhukovsky -Alexander Syomochkin
Nikita Trukhanov – Yevgeni Goranin
Maxim Magaletsky – Yegor Ivanov
Ilya Letov – Mikhail Prus
Anton Shevchuk – Egor Rublev
Katowice are the known quantity for the Giants, having already beaten Belfast 2-3 in a fantastic game of hockey at the SSE arena in November. Since they last met, Katowice have won ten games and lost three in all competitions. They have lost some form recently in dealing with injuries to the line-up, but throughout the past few months the team amassed an impressive twenty-two game win streak in league play, which was only broken on 20th December in the last game of a sixteen game road trip, including the Continental Cup semi-final games. Katowice still sit three points clear of GKS Tychy on top of the Polish Hokej Liga at the time of writing (5).
Top defenseman Eetu Heikkinen left the club on the 05th December citing personal reasons, and has since been replaced by another puck moving Finn, Jesse Jyrkkiö, who has stepped straight into Heikkinen’s spot on the top defensive pairing. Jyrkkiö fills a similar role to Heikkinen, and has scored at close to a point per game with HDD Jesenice this season, playing in the same Alps Hockey League that Rittner Baum play in.
Arguably the star of Katowice’s semi-final appearance in Belfast, Patryk Wronka has recently missed games through injury but has been back in the side of late. He has 46 points in 33 league games for the club, not a surprise considering his level of play in the SSE. Two more standouts in Belfast have missed game time for Katowice, Grzegorz Pasiut and Tomasz Malasinski, the team’s captain currently recovering from an injured finger (6). Marek Strzyzowski and Bartosz Fraszko have filled in admirably for the injured players, Strzyzowski scoring 13 points in 12 games since joining the club just before November’s semi-final.
Katowice coach Tom Coonen has his team playing a fast puck possession game that is enjoyable to watch, and they can spend long periods in the offensive zone due to their creative cycle work. The goal for their opponents will be the same as before, disrupt the Polish team from skating as much as possible. Easier said than done, but I feel the Giants have the players to counter Katowice’s speed, in the same way that Team GB’s aggressive forecheck at the 2017 World Championships in Belfast countered the speed of Team Japan’s centres.
Katowice’s first line is a threat every time they are on the ice, with Wronka particularly able to unlock any defence. If Malasinski and Pasiut are fit, the second line provides a potent one-two punch, but even if they miss out, there is speed and quality throughout the line-up. Katowice will also have a large support cheering on the team for a full sixty minutes, and the game on Saturday night against the Giants should be another memorable spectacle. Katowice have every chance of claiming the Continental Cup, and if they can beat Kokshetau in the first game of the tournament they will believe they can go all the way and lift the trophy.
Mikolaj Lopuski – Jesse Rohtla – Patryk Wronka
Janne Laakonen – Grzegorz Pasiut* – Tomasz Malasinski (c)*
Bartosz Fraszko – Patryk Krezolek – Maciej Urbanowicz
Maciej Rybak – Radoslaw Sawicki – Marek Strzyzowski
Jesse Jyrkkiö – Jakub Wanacki
Martin Cakajik – Dusan Devecka
Damian Tomasik – Oskar Krawczyk
Tomasz Skokan – Niko Tuhkanen*
The Giants sit one point behind defending Elite League champions the Cardiff Devils, despite an inconsistent run of form in December. The Devils have similarly dropped points, as the two teams continue to match each other at the top of the standings in what is becoming a two-horse race for the EIHL league title (7). The Giants prepared for their European adventure with a four point weekend against the Sheffield Steelers in two tightly fought clashes, and will be well rested for the start of the tournament on Friday compared to their opponents, who still have games to play before travelling to Belfast.
The Giants are almost at full strength heading into the final, with Colin Shields returning to the ice this past weekend against the Steelers. Blair Riley has been scoring consistently for the Giants this year, as the line of Riley, Darcy Murphy and David Rutherford have continued to light the league up. Patrick Dwyer showed against Sheffield that he has the ability to put the team on his back and carry them over the line if need be. Scoring depth is an advantage the Giants have, as several players could step up on any given night for the game winning goal. The defence have been relatively stingy, working hard in front of Tyler Beskorowany who continues to impress with his stellar goaltending performances.
The Black Ace in the pack is the “Belfast Datsyuk” Chris Higgins. Higgins is a fan favourite in Belfast after his highlight reel plays have lit up the opposition and the wider hockey social media world through three seasons with the Giants. He had retired from the sport, but has returned to Belfast to replace the outgoing Francis Beauvillier.
On his day Higgins can rip a team apart, but he will only have had two weeks of practice with the team, and the game against Gomel on the 11th will be his first competitive game having sat out the double-header with Sheffield. It’s difficult to find a spot for him in the line-up with how the team have played, as I don’t think anyone really deserves to drop down a line right now, but if he can find some chemistry on the top two lines he could be a key contributor for the Giants. In some ways it may be better to try him on the third line, as if he can fire us to three scoring lines the Giants would be hard to beat. It’s a good problem for Adam Keefe to have.
The Giants have struggled with three-in-three games this season, losing to Katowice in November, and recently to Dundee after winning games against Milton Keynes and Glasgow on the two previous nights. Each team plays the same schedule this weekend however, and the Giants have the advantage of their home routine and playing the late game each night. From a Giants perspective, they would hope that if they are in a position to win the Cup come Sunday night, fatigue won’t be a factor in raising their game to try to win a championship. The team has more quality depth than in recent seasons and can play all of their imports in the Continental Cup, for me the Giants have a team that can win this competition.
Darcy Murphy – Blair Riley (c) – David Rutherford
Chris Higgins – Patrick Dwyer – Kyle Baun
Hunter Bishop – Dustin Johner – Colin Shields
Lewis Hook – Jonathan Boxill – Jonathan Ferland
Curtis Leonard – Josh Roach
Kendall McFaull – Kevin Raine
Mark Garside – Jim Vandermeer
The Continental Cup final promises to be an exciting weekend for club and city, with for me three teams capable of taking the trophy. To win the Continental Cup in our home barn would be a fantastic achievement for the Giants, and they have a team that has every chance of becoming Continental Cup Champions 2018/19.
Once again, hard work off the ice coupled with the team’s efforts on the ice will provide a festival of hockey for fans from Belfast and beyond who take in the Continental Cup final, and it will be a privilege to be able to watch the tournament play out in Belfast.
Once again, I can’t wait.
(1) Continental Cup Group D: http://continental-cup2019-groupf.iihf.hockey/en/news/arlan,-gomel-advance-to-final
(2) Khazak Hockey Championship statistics found at: https://icehockey.kz (Correct as of 05/01/19)
(3) Kokshetau game footage through Arlan’s official website: http://arlanclub.kz
(4) HK Gomel information sourced at: http://hcgomel.by
(5) Katowice statistics sourced at: http://www.hokej.net
(6) Katowice team information found at: https://hokej.gkskatowice.eu/index