A Devils’ night

QUEENSTOWN, New Zealand – It was the Red Devils Night. The Christchurch-based team won its second New Zealand Ice Hockey League title in controversial fashion in a penalty shoot-out.

The Canterbury Red Devils overcame the Southern Stampede’s home advantage to win 6-5. They also beat the Stampede to win the 2009 final at Christchurch.

The scores were level 5-all after three periods and there was no change after five minutes of overtime.

It was the first time a shoot-out had been used since the New Zealand league started in 2005.

The scene was dramatic with 500 screaming fans at the packed out Queenstown Ice Arena. Most were dressed in yellow and cheering for the home team.

But a loyal band of 50 Red Devils supporters made the seven-hour bus trip from Christchurch to back their team.

Czech import Pavel Novak missed the first attempt by the Red Devils. Ice Black veteran Brett Speirs, who had scored 16 goals in the league this season, was wide for the Stampede.

Red Devils hot shot Chris Eaden was on target and scored his 21st goal of the league to put the Christchurch team on the board. American import Brian Horwitz failed for the Stampede.

Russian player Valeri Konev, one of the stars, won the game for the Red Devils with a neat spin-around that bamboozled the Ice Blacks goaltender Aston Brookes.

This is where the controversy started. The referee on the spot ruled the goal out. But after discussion with the other referee and the linesmen, he was over-ruled and the goal was allowed.

The Red Devils fans gave a deafening roar and the team was ecstatic and threw their helmets in the air and hugged themselves.

The rules allow the spin-around but state that the forward motion of the puck must continue.

A replay of the video is inconclusive. The Stampede fans claim that the puck stopped during Konev’s spin around. The Red Devils support the decision.

Southern Stampede and former Ice Blacks captain Simon Glass was upset. It was the second time his Stampede team had lost the final to the Red Devils.

“It was gut wrenching to lose the game this way, especially after winning eight games in a row to get a home final,’’ he said.

It was the final fling for Glass, who has played 87 league games for the Stampede and 50 international games for the Ice Blacks. He wanted to go out on a high note.

Eaden, 22, an Ice Black for the last three years, explained why the Red Devils won the shoot-out.

Each day at training he has a one-on-one fun game with goalie Michael Coleman, who was only third string in the position at the start of the season.

“It is the first to five and it’s competitive,’’ Eaden said. “It paid off tonight. It’s unbelievable.’’

Eaden, a sports scholarship student at Lincoln College in Christchurch, admitted the odds were against the Red Devils because they had only won one of the four games against Stampede in the regular season.

“But we had great support from our fans who had travelled to Queenstown and it gave belief to our team,’’ he said. “We wanted to give them a big return.’’

Among the Red Devils fans at Queenstown were Eaden’s mother Trudy and his aunt Julie Walls.

They were proud to have their photo taken with their son and nephew after the game when he was holding the Birgel Cup.

Eaden was named the Most Valuable Player in the league.

Eaden has been the top goal scorer in the New Zealand league for the last four years. His best tally was 34 goals in 2009 when the Red Devils last won the title.

“Chris is the best New Zealand based player,’’ Red Devils coach Anatoli Khorozov, who hails from Kyiv, Ukraine, said.

He has been a professional coach for the last 15 years and also had success as a player when his team won a junior championship in the Soviet Union in 1986.

The coach also praised the efforts of goaltender Michael Coleman, who was only playing his third league game and out-played his opponent, Ice Black incumbent Aston Brookes.

Coleman was only ranked third goalie in the Red Devils squad at the start of the season.

He made 30 saves compared to the 24 made by Brookes. Coleman was skilled at handling the shoot-out.

Pavel Novak had speed when attacking up the flanks and was the danger man for the Red Devils. He was prepared to shoot early.

Valeri Konev was tricky when attacking up the centre and his angled shots when attacking up the flanks kept the pressure on Brookes. He was named MVP for the final.

Canadian import James Kirkwood, the MVP for the Red Devils this season, was a rugged defender and made it difficult for the Stampede to get shots at goal when in the attack zone.

Two goals to the Red Devils in the first 10 minutes rocked the Stampede’s pre-match confidence but they fought back to trail by just one shot, 3-2 at the end of the first period.

American import Michael Weber scored the only goal in the second period as the Stampede evened the scores at 3-all.

Each side scored two goals in the third period before the game went into overtime. Stefan Speck gave the Red Devils the lead 5-4 with just two minutes left. The Stampede, in a desperate move, pulled the goalie and went on all-out attack and Speirs netted to even the scores.

The Russian and European style came through in the Red Devils game this year with new coach Khorozov, who developed the players speed and skills on the ice.

He has been a professional ice hockey coach for 15 years and has used this experience to develop his own system.

“I have taken the best parts of the other systems and developed my own concept of the game,’’ he said.

He had a successful record before coming to Christchurch and teams progressed significantly under his influence.

He proved it with the Red Devils, a team that had finished third in the last two years, by claiming the title this year.

He used his influence to attract three Russians to his team – defender Maxim Fokin and forwards Valeri Konev and Kim Dovlatyan while Pavel Novak is from the Czech Republic.

Khorozov’s influence was evident in the final. He knew that the Red Devils could not match the aggressive physical style of Stampede and concentrated on quick puck movement and a more compact style.

The Red Devils knew they were in the final a month ago and concentrated on this one big effort.

“We have been preparing for a month,’’ Khorozov said. “We have worked hard since then.’’

The coach pinpointed big and experienced Canadian import Matt Schneider as the key Stampede player that needed to be shut down.

“The defence sat on him and pushed the angles to make it difficult for him to get many shots at goal,’’ Khorozov said.

A feature of the Red Devils play was the ability to break up the flanks and put in early angled shots at goal to test the defence. There was also a red-shirted player following up.

“Two of our goals came from rebounds,’’ a beaming Khorozov said after the game.

A crucial game in the Red Devils season was the second game of a double header against the Dunedin Thunder at Christchurch that was won 9-4. It was the win that propelled the Red Devils to the final.

It was a crunch game for both teams because the Thunder had won the first game of the double header 3-0.

Eaden was the star of that game and used his talent to net five goals.

The Red Devils club was formed in 2005 and won the league in 2009 after finishing runner-up in 2007 and 2008.

The Southern Stampede was also formed when the New Zealand league started in 2005 and won the title in 2005 and 2006 and finished runner-up in 2009, 2011 and 2012.

Its team this year has relied on seven imports – five from Canada and two from the United States – and New Zealand representatives Brett Speirs, Connor Harrison, Simon Glass and Aston Brookes.

Speirs and Bert Haines reached significant milestones this season and became the first players to play 100 games in the New Zealand league. Andrew Hay (Botany Swarm) also reached 100 league games. Speirs was named Stampede’s MVP in this year’s league.

The season started badly for Stampede when it won only three of its first eight games and then had a forgettable Trans-Tasman Champions League when it lost heavily to Melbourne Ice 12-2 and Newcastle North Stars 11-3.

The turnaround came in the re-match double header against Dunedin Thunder at Dunedin with two wins, 6-3 and 7-2.

It won eight games on the trot to claim the home final at Queenstown for the first time.

The crucial weekend was the double header against the Red Devils in Christchurch that it won 6-5 and 6-2.

Experienced ice hockey administrator and New Zealand Ice Hockey Federation treasurer Charlie Reid said the team’s poor showing early in the season was caused by a string of injuries to top players.

“Matt Schneider broke his wrist in a warm-up game and Aston Brookes was injured the following week,’’ Reid said.

Canadian import Stefan Wright broke his ankle when a car backed into him when he was warming up before a game in car park.

“At full strength we knew we could manage our own destiny,’’ Reid said. “We just had to play our own game to get a home final.’’

Ice hockey has become the iconic winter sport at Queenstown with a loyal home base packing the Queenstown Ice Arena for home games.

The spectators are close to the ice and the atmosphere at the final was electric for the first home final played at Queenstown.

Points at the end of the 16-game round-robin competition were: Southern Stampede 32, Red Devils 29, Dunedin Thunder 28, Auckland Admirals 20 and last year’s champions Botany Swarm 11.

Dunedin Thunder, under new coach Janos Kaszak, had its best season in the league and narrowly missed the finals.

Key players were Paris Heyd, who passed on the experience he gained from his seven-month stint with the Cergy-Pontoise Jokers in France, Ice Blacks goalie Rick Parry and Finnish imports Matti Haapakoski, Jussi V?h?maa and Joni Nukari, who added more European experience to Dunedin Thunder.

Dunedin Thunder started the league in style with double header wins against Botany Swarm and Stampede. A slump in mid-season proved costly with double header losses to Auckland Admirals and Stampede.

“We lost four games in a row but we came back at the end,’’ assistant coach Aaron Bryant said. “But it was too little and too late. But we scored 10 more points than last year and won three more games.’’

The prospects are good for next season with 90 per cent of the squad returning.

The big disappointment of the league was the Botany Swarm, the four-time champion that finished last. The highlight of their season was the impressive showing in the Trans-Tasman Champions League where they managed to keep up with the Australian opponents.

ALISTAIR MCMURRAN, IIHF.com

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