Best of Asia
Best of Asia
Korea’s Anyang Halla reclaims Asia League title
Woo Sang Park was clear 10 months ago. “This year's goal is to win both the regular season and the Asia League Championship,” the towering Anyang Halla forward said before the 2015/16 season started. His team lived up to the promise defeating Russian PSK Sakhalin taking the best-of-five series three games to two.
With the victory, Anyang Halla laid claim on their third-ever Asia League title for them and for a non-Japanese team and their first since 2011 when they shared the trophy with the Tohoku Free Blades as the finals were canceled in light of an earthquake in the Tohoku region that hit the teams on the road to Tohoku and during practice respectively.
Sakhalin is a very good team that I respect, Halla coach Jiri Veber said about the team from the Russian island of Sakhalin before the series commenced. "It's good that we're playing Sakhalin in the finals because it's the two best teams from the regular season in the final.”
It wasn’t surprising that the series went to the maximum of five games. Both teams dominated the regular season, both exceeding the 100+ point mark in the 48-game league. Halla claimed the top spot by virtue of having a one-point lead over their Russian rivals (114 points versus 113). In the regular season series between both teams, home ice was key as the victories were evenly shared with each of the six games against each other being won by the home team.
The pattern continued in Game 1 of the final series in which Anyang Halla drew first blood with a convincing 6-1 victory. But home-ice advantage turned into disadvantage after that.
PSK Sakhalin stunned the Korean crowd by winning the next two games and take a series lead back to Russia. Game 4 at the Kristall Arena in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk brought genuine drama. The game was scoreless for nearly 60 minutes when Brock Radunske deflected an Eric Regan shot into the net with just six seconds left to play in regulation time. The goal was being reviewed for a claimed high stick but the initial call stood, keeping Anyang Halla´s title hopes alive.
In the decisive fifth game it was Sang Woon Shin who came up big when it mattered most. The team´s leading scorer in the playoffs had two goals and an assist in the 5-3 victory.
Anyang Halla took the lead when Sang Hoon Shin opened the scoring in the first period. Alexei Yeremin equalized for Sakhalin less than five minutes into the middle stanza before the Koreans scored a double pack within seven minutes to take the score to 3-1.
The Russians were unfazed and managed to get back into the game via goals of Sergejs Pecura and Dmitri Fakhrutdinov, but once again found themselves on the wrong end of the score with the clock winding down. This time team captain Sang Woon Shin performed heroics when his second goals of the game earned Anyang Halla the lead for the third time with just two minutes left to play.
It was the dagger in the heart of Sakhalin. A final push for the equalizer with an extra attacker backfired as Ki Sung Kim scored an empty netter to make it 5-3.
The result means the Asia League title is back in Korea for the first time since 2011. Ever since, the title has gone to teams from Japan. Last year Anyang Halla fell short against the Tohoku Free Blades in the final series. In the semi-finals both teams met again and Anyang Halla avenged for having been swept the year before. They dominated the series and left the Free Blades with no chance in each of the three games.
We talked about last year's experience with Tohoku, and I told them not to forget about last year, Veber told the media. "We played a different style than last year. We had new players and there was more competition within the team. I am not saying we had bad defence last year, but we're stronger on defence this year."
There was general consensus that this season’s Anyang Halla team was stronger overall than last year. With forward Mike Testwuide having received his Korean passport, there was also room for another import player and goaltender Mike Dalton has been in superb form all season and claimed the league’s MVP award. Also he is a candidate to make his debut with the Korean national team.
Our team has become stronger as young players were added to the squad, Veber commented also realizing that nearly half of his squad now had an extra season of playoff experience behind them. Something that was lacking the year before.
Veber: “I am very proud of my players who responded to the challenge to play complete hockey this season. It is a good time for our team and our fans.”
While the coach has travelled back home to enjoy the off-season with his family, most of the players will prepare for the upcoming 2016 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championships Division I Group A, which starts in Katowice, Poland in two weeks time. It will be the next step in the preparation for Korea’s Olympic ice hockey debut on home ice in PyeongChang 2018.
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