It’s another huge weekend for Adam Keefe and his Belfast Giants as they chase their first trophy of the season. The Giants are in the Super Final of the IIHF Continental Cup, bidding to become the second Elite League winners of the prize after Corey Neilson led the Nottingham Panthers to success in 2016-17. Most people view the Giants as the outsiders of the four finalists, but anything is possible. Here’s our preview of the tournament; which is being held in the Odyssey (or SSE Arena for commercial branding), Belfast this weekend.
We’re actually going to look at each of the finalists individually.
HK Gomel (Belarus) – Gomel, the Belarusian representatives and domestic Cup holders there, are in their second Continental Cup Super Final. They contested the seventh Final in 2003-04 when the destination of the trophy was determined by a one off game. The Final was played on their home ice, but they couldn’t cap it with a win as Slovan Bratislava took the honours after a 6-2 success. Gomel were only in their fourth season as a hockey club; so to come as close as they did then was an incredible achievement.
Gomel will be looking to make it back to back for Belarus after Yunost Minsk lifted the trophy last season. They will be reliant on the experience provided by winger Pavel Musienko who holds many a club record. The Belarusians will be a team that you can discount at your peril.
Arlan Kokshetau (Kazakhstan) – Most people’s favourites to take the crown, and it’s not hard to argue with that. Arlan qualified for the Continental Cup by winning the 2017-18 post season in Kazakhstan, and made their first Super Final by winning their semi-final group in Lyon. The club is only in their tenth season, having being formed as recent as just 2009 but have already won four Kazakhstan league crowns in that time and are looking good to make it five as they lead the title race there by five points and have games in hand on those below them.
Arlan’s roster has stacks of experienced with 12 of the roster having played in the KHL; totalling almost 1900 games between them. The side was also home to a certain Ben O’Connor too with the GB internationalist playing two and a bit seasons, icing for them 142 times and honing his offensive game there.
GKS Katowice (Poland) – The Polish side made their way to their first ever Super Final by means of a last day success in Belfast. It’s not their first appearance in the Continental Cup though as they competed in both the 2001-02 and 2002-03 tournaments but failed to get past the group stages in both. They are the oldest club in terms of existence out of the four finalists, having being formed as far back as 1969. Like Arlan, they have extensive experience in their roster with players that have played in both the Czech and Finnish top divisions. This team, like Gomel, cannot be underestimated as well.
Katowice are coached by Canadian Tom Coolen who has had an long career in hockey coaching. The 65 year old spent a season, as recent as 2014-15, as an assistant coach to Ted Nolan when the latter coached the Buffalo Sabres in the NHL. He’s also had national coaching experience, linking up with Nolan many more times, in Latvia and most recently with the Polish national team.
Belfast Giants (EIHL) – The underdogs of the tournament despite being the hosts of it. Most hockey people have given Adam Keefe’s Giants little chance of winning the tournament but that could be the catalyst that propels the Northern Irish side to an unexpected glory. Formed in 2000, like fellow finalists Gomel, the Giants have come a long way since that first season in the ISL. They have a roster has youthful exburance in the shape of Darcy Murphy and promising British talent Lewis Hook, as well as top level experience in former NHL stars Patrick Dwyer and Jim Vandermeer. In former Dallas Stars draft pick Tyler Beskorowany, they have a quality goalie who will give them chances to win every night.
For the Giants to succeed, they will need to be penalty smart as EIHL sides have come unstuck many a time in European competition with discipline. This is the Giants fourth foray into the Continental Cup but their first ever Super Final, they made the semi-final stage in 2014-15 but were eliminated in heartbreaking fashion after finishing on 6 points alongside Angers and eventual winners Grodno.
It promises to be an excellent tournament and a great showcase for the Giants and improve the standing of GB ice hockey. Good luck Belfast, the Elite League is behind you 100 per cent!