For host club Cardiff, it was a weekend of serene progress. A 3-1 win over the French team on opening night set the tone. Saturday brought a 3-0 verdict against Acroni Jesenice from Slovenia, confirming top spot in the group, despite playing with just three full lines in back-to-back games. Then Sunday’s finale saw a 5-2 win over Latvian champion Zemgale Jelgava in front of an enthusiastic home crowd that sang of going on a European tour.
Zemgale, unable to progress whatever the result, briefly threatened to crash the party when Ricards Bernhards scored an early power play goal. That was the first time Cardiff trailed this weekend. However, with tempers threatening to boil over, the home team responded with two power-play goals of its own, separated by just 57 seconds. When crowd favourite Joey Martin added a third just before the intermission, the outcome of the game seemed clear.
Much of the play was scrappy, with both teams regularly visiting the penalty box. Cardiff extended its lead on goals from Ryan Penny – who finished as leading goal scorer with three – and Justin Crandall, before Gatis Gracinskis grabbed a late consolation for the Latvians.
For Devils head coach Brodie Dupont, it wrapped up a good weekend’s work.
“We felt like we were in control of every game throughout the entire tournament,” he said. “I didn’t feel like we lost control at any point so I was really satisfied with the guys’ performance.”
Cardiff has won every available trophy in British hockey, but has yet to enjoy European success. The chance to win the Continental Cup next year is a reward for an organisation that made a good impression on and off the ice this weekend.
“This is top-notch organisation,” Dupont added. “Everyone is proud to play for the Devils, they know what’s expected and those expectations are high. It’s to win, and that’s what you want to be in as a player or a coach.
“Any time you play for a trophy it’s exciting, so we’re going to enjoy this a little bit now then we have to regroup. It will be exciting to play for the cup in January.”
Les Ducs bounce backAngers, meanwhile, had to show great character to recover from that Friday night loss. A 2-0 win over Zemgale Jelgava on Saturday set up a winner-takes-all battle with Jesenice for second place in the standings and for a berth in next year’s final. The Slovenes, who qualified for this stage as a ‘lucky loser’ after Saryarka Karaganda withdrew, surprised Zemgale in the opening game and had hopes of becoming their country’s first ever finalist in this tournament.
However, the decider was settled early on. Angers outshot Jesenice 22-2 in a one-sided first period, opening a 2-0 lead on goals from Brendan Harms and Tommy Giroux. It could have been more, with Nicolas Ritz hitting the bar as the Ducs dominated.
Early in the second, Phillippe Halley extended the lead before Patrik Rasjar got the Slovenes on the scoreboard. At 3-1, Jesenice kept looking for a way back. If Eric Pance’s shot off the post had found the net midway through the third we might have had a grandstand finish to match his overtime winner against Zemgale. Instead, though, an empty net goal from Cedric di Dio Balsamo sent the French team through to the final four.
For head coach Mario Richer, progress was reward for the character that his team showed in bouncing back from the opening night loss to Cardiff. Looking ahead, he is hoping that the Continental Cup can be part of Angers’ upswing since opening a new rink in the Loire Valley city last season.
“With the new rink, we can get more fans to the games,” he said. “That means more money and better players, so Angers can try to go to the same level as Rouen and Grenoble, who are the best teams in France over the last 10 years.
“Now Angers wants to play at that level, to compete against them and the bigger teams. That’s why this Continental Cup is very important for us as an organization.”
The venue for January’s final has yet to be decided, but Richer has no doubt that Angers would make a great host.
“It means a lot to us,” he added. “You could see the fans who followed us here and if we host the final we could have a sell-out at every game. We might have close to 4,000 people, maybe 5,000 if we can let people in to stand. That would be very good for us, and for the Ligue Magnus to show that we have a good league over there and the competition is very good.”
Jesenice’s defeat meant Slovenia’s representative finished third in Group E. For captain Gasper Galvic, that’s an encouraging sign on only the team’s second appearance at this stage of the competition.
“Coming third, that’s something for us,” he said. “Of course we wanted to reach the final stages but in the end we just came up short. Overall, though, it was a great experience to be in this tournament. It’s only the second time in our club’s history that we reached the third round of the Continental Cup.”
The individual scoring was dominated by Cardiff players. Defender Marcus Crawford topped the charts with five assists, ahead of Trevor Cox and Brodie Reid, both on 4 (1+4). Penny led the goal rankings with three. Phillippe Halley of Angers and Jasa Jenko of Jesenice were the leading scorers from other teams, both collected a goal and two helpers.
The top two teams owed much to some impressive goaltending. GB international Ben Bowns stopped 95.35% of the shots he faced in his two games. Angers’ Evan Cowley was right with him on 95.12% from three appearances.