An overtime win on the final day propelled Crvena Zvezda Belgrade to the Second Round of the Continental Cup. Photo: Marko Djokovic
Brasov next up for Crvena Zvezda Belgrade
Following plenty of hard graft and a few nervy moments Crvena Zvezda Belgrade won qualification to the Second Round of the Continental Cup.
Group A, played in Belgrade's Hala Pionir became a fine showcase for the Continental Cup, a tournament now entering its third decade. The first round of games were competitive from start to finish, capping off with a nail-biting final game that saw the home supporters go home happy as Crvena Zvezda won on home ice in extra time.
Crvena Zvezda first brushed aside newcomers Esja Reykjavik 6-1 and then followed it up by edging Turkish champions Zeitinburnu Istanbul 4-3. Their final game was a tense one against Irbis-Skate Sofia, before a late leveller saw them seal the tournament victory 5-4 in overtime.
"The goal for our team was to finish first and that's what we did," said Crvena Zvezda head coach Igor Krivoshlyk following his team's Group A win. "The players all play with their hearts and that's the main strength with our team."
Crvena Zvezda now moves into the Second round of the Continental Cup played in neighbouring Romania between 20-22 October where hosts Corona Brasov, DVTK Jegesmedvek Miskolc from Hungary and Spain's reigning champions Txuri Urdin San Sebastian awaits.
With 15:37 left of the final game of Group A, a fine piece of individual skill saw Irbis-Skate Sofia's Alexei Yotov round the cage of Arsenije Rankovic before firing home a high shot past the Crvena Zvezda netminder to silence the home crowd.
The 4-3 goal meant the Bulgarians had not only turned the game, but also now were in the driving seat for a place in the next round. Right until then things had gone according to the script for the hosts in their final game against the Bulgarian champions Irbis-Skate Sofia. Twice had they been in possession of a two-goal cushion before they now all of a sudden were forced to start chasing a goal.
Starting to look hesitant and anxious as time ran passed, Crvena Zvezda capitalised on their big chance with 3:05 left of the game. With Irbis-Skate Sofia's Makar Perminov serving a tripping call, Crvena Zvezda head coach Krivoshlyk called a timeout. Rankovic was pulled for the extra attacker, and only seven seconds later Nemanja Vucurevic reacted fastest on a loose puck to score his second for the evening to get the home crowd on their feet.
The tournament top scorer, David Sefic then netted an overtime winner at 62:06 with the Serbs finishing top and Bulgaria's participants finishing third.
Zeitinburnu Istanbul wrote Turkish ice hockey history last year when finishing top at the first round of the Continental Cup, before they were forced to withdraw from participating at the next hurdle.
In Belgrade they once again had their sights set on finishing on a high note. In their opener they were trailing 3-1 against Irbis-Skate Sofia, but fought back and with 3:22 left of the final frame they surged ahead to a 4-3 lead with their game winning goal scored by influential Turkish national team player Serkan Gumus. Against Crvena Zvezda, they showed resilience as it was once again Gumus who got Zeitinburnu Istanbul back level, before a late rally by Crvena Zvezda finally downed the Turkish champions 4-3.
"We had been hoping to win, but we also have a lot of young players on our team, so next year we will have more experience and then need to work even harder," said Gumus after Zeitinburnu Istanbul's second place finish.
Celebrating their inaugural domestic championship title last spring, Esja from Iceland's capital Reykjavik had arrived to Belgrade as Iceland's first ever Continental Cup participant. They received a harsh introduction to their new surroundings being overpowered 6-1 by Crvena Zvezda while being outshot by 16-38.
"We were not good against Red Star (Crvena Zvezda). We were a little uncertain in our game and I think we respected them a little bit too much, but I think we played the last couple of games well." said head coach Gauti Thormodsson as Esja Reykjavik got their first Continental Cup point on board in their final match, losing after penalty shots against Zeitinburnu Istanbul.
"Full credit to the players who worked hard. We had no idea of the level of the opponents, but the overall experience for our club is great and with a little bit of luck and a bit more experience we could have done better," said Thormodsson.
Crvena Zvezda has less than three weeks to prepare before travelling to the next round in Brasov, where in the Transylvanian part of Romania they be re-acquainted with many familiar opponents from last season. With the chunk of the Crvena Zvezda roster having represented HK Beograd in league play against their upcoming Hungarian and Romanian opponents, they will be well aware of the quality facing them when stepping up a level in the Continental Cup.
"Every team wants to win and we believe we can have good results in the next round," said Crvena Zvezda's head coach Igor Krivoshlyk ahead of what is come. "But if we want to be competitive there, we will have lots to improve in every aspects of our game before that."