Sofia kicks off Continental Cup

Host team CSKA aiming to make next round

CSKA Sofia lost out on a trip to the second round last year on goal difference, but the now-revived Bulgarian champs will look to continue their improved play at home. Photo: Dejan Balan

SOFIA – The first round of the 2015 Continental Cup will be staged during the weekend (26-28 September) in the Winter Palace in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. CSKA Sofia is the host team. The other participants are CG Puigcerda from Spain, Beostar Belgrade from Serbia and the Turkish champions Izmir BJBSK.
The road to January’s Super Final is a long one for the teams competing in Group A. The winner of the round robin tournament will advance to the second round in Group B and will play against Fischtown Pinguins Bremerhaven (GER), Belfast Giants (GBR) and Tilburg Trappers (NED) in Bremerhaven (17-19 October).
The other four teams are in Group C – KH Sanok (POL), Corona Brasov (ROU), Dunaujvarosi Acelbikak (HUN) and Prizma Riga (LAT); and six more are waiting in the third round the winners of those two groups. Ritten Sport (ITA), Herning Blue Fox (DEN) and Yertis Pavlodar (KAZ) will play with the winner of Group B and Neman Grodno (BLR), Angers Ducs (FRA) and Kompanion Kyiv (UKR) will form a group with the winner of group C. The two top ranked teams in these new groups will advance to the final round (9-11 January). With the new structure of the IIHF Continental Cup the winner of the Super Final will earn a wild card for the Champions Hockey League in the 2015-16 season.

From the four teams that will start the new campaign only CSKA Sofia participated in the Continental Cup last season. In 2013 the “Red Team” became a champion of Bulgaria for the 22nd time, but only for the first time since 1986. They repeated in 2014 without a defeat. A year ago in the first round of the Continental Cup CSKA Sofia made a positive comeback to European club competition after a long absence. In Belgrade CSKA won its first match 4:1 over Bipolo Vitoria-Gasteiz (ESP), but then lost 3:5 to both Partizan Belgrade (SRB) and Viiking Sport Tallinn (EST).

In the last game CSKA had a chance to earn a place in the second round with a win, but allowed the Estonian team to from 0:2 and 2:3 deficits. In the end there were 3 teams with 3 points each in a tie-breaker for second place. Bipolo had the best goal-difference in this situation and the Spanish team later played in the second round, when the winner Viiking (9 points) was not able to travel to the tournament in Nottingham.
This time CSKA Sofia has high hopes for a trip to the next round in Germany. “The only thing that we aim for is the first place in the tournament, but it will be very difficult. We want to show to the public that Bulgarian teams can win against strong opposition if they are well organized and prepared. The management of the team has put a lot of efforts to achieve this,” said head coach Kiril Hodulov head of the start of the tournament.

In the team there will be some familiar faces from last season such as Andrei Mukhachev – a two-time KHL champion with Ak Bars Kazan 2009-10 – but also new foreigners with a total of eight Slovaks and four Russians. The veteran goaltender Konstantin Mihaylov (born 1964), with more than 20 world championships behind him, was between the pipes for all games in Belgrade. This time CSKA will have a new face in goal – Sergei Klimentyev. The 26-year-old has played for Kristall Elektrostal in the Russian Hockey League.

An interesting new forward for the team is Georgi Iskrenov, who developed as an ice hockey player in USA. He made good impressions playing for the Bulgarian National team and is also very popular because of his legendary dad – Bozhidar Iskrenov, is counted among the best Bulgarian football players of the 1980s.

CG Puigcerda also has a big Slovak influence, led by the former playing coach Peter Kotlarik. He is the all-time team points leader after seven seasons in Puigcerda and will compete in Sofia as a player. The other Slovaks are in goal – Andrej Beliansky, in defense – Ladislav Gabris, who has played for Dukla Trencin in Slovak’s Extraliga, and forwards Miroslav Skovira (600 points in Extraliga, mainly with SKP Poprad) and Lukas Ruzicka. There is one Ukrainian defenceman in the roster too – Vitaliy Kulikov. He was part of Bipolo Vitoria-Gasteiz last season and played against CSKA Sofia in the Continental Cup. CG Puigcerda lost the final playoffs series of the Spanish championships last season to Bipolo 1-3.

Beostar Belgrade makes big steps ahead with the arrival of Dan (Dragan) Kesa in the summer of 2013. The inspirational former NHLer with Serbian roots started to work with juniors all ages and that brought many players from other teams to Beostar. There are only two foreigners on the team for Sofia – the Canadian Mico Dragutinovic and Ukranian Dmytro Gnitko, but also four players from the Men’s National team and four more from the U20 squad.

On Izmir BJBSK’s roster there are only Turkish players. Serbia is in the IIHF World Championships Division II Group A with Spain (promoted from Group B) and Turkey and Bulgaria (promoted from Division III) will play in Division II Group B.

All games from the first round in Sofia will be shown with live stream Here is the schedule:

26 September, Fiday, 15:30 (CET +1) Beostar Belgrade – Izmir BJBSK

26 September, Fiday, 19:00 (CET +1) CSKA Sofia – CG Puigcerda

27 September, Saturday, 15:30 (CET +1) CG Puigcerda – Beostar Belgrade

27 September, Saturday, 19:00 (CET +1) Izmir BJBSK – CSKA Sofia

28 September, Sunday, 14:00 (CET +1) Izmir BJBSK – CG Puigcerda

28 September, Sunday, 17:30 (CET +1) CSKA Sofia – Beostar Belgrade

Before the game between CSKA Sofia and CG Puigcerda there will be an opening ceremony with the participation of the Bulgarian Minister of Youth and Sport Evgenia Radanova, 3-time Olympic medalist and 2-times world champion and ex-world record holder in short track.