A year ago, this was an end-of-season fixture between two teams outside the playoffs and the novelty of playing beneath the Baltic skies made it a big event; this time, in addition to the party atmosphere in the Latvian capital, there were vital points at stake if Riga is to make the playoffs. Only a win would do as the men in maroon looked to keep pace with HC Sochi and Vityaz as the regular season moves towards its final week.
Dinamo Riga president Juris Savitskis spoke of the work that his club is doing to make this open-air game an annual hockey festival.
“Even last year I was talking about how we wanted to make the Winter Ice Break a regular event,” Savitskis told KHL.ru. “Our fans can expect a real celebration, a full package of music, entertainment, hockey … and even free soup to keep everyone warm! The whole thing really chimes with any hockey fan who grew up playing outdoors on makeshift rinks at school or on rivers and ponds. Watching a game in the open air is very different from sitting in an enclosed arena.”
Last season the same match-up took place in the same venue and proved to be a big success. Savitskis believes there’s even more to come.
“This year will be even more enjoyable,” he promised. “We’ve learned from last year’s experience, we’ll have more screens, more food concessions, extra entertainment for the kids. We’ve got 10,000 seats in the arena and we’ve made the access better.
“And there’s another difference. Last year we played in the afternoon but this time it’s an evening game. I was at the arena yesterday at about 10 pm and everything was gleaming under the lights. I think it will look even better at night, we can create some extra lighting effects around the game. We want to make this a real festival for our fans.”
If there was a concern ahead of the game, it was the unseasonably warm weather in Riga. A February evening with temperatures well above freezing is unusual in this part of the world, but it was exactly what the forecast predicted. However, home captain Lauris Darzins wasn’t anticipating any problems after a practice on the ice yesterday. “In a regular arena the temperature is usually about 8-10 degrees and it doesn’t cause problems. In my pro career, this will be my second open-air game, but when I was a kid I was always chasing a puck around the yard.”
For head coach Girts Ankipans, part of the challenge was ensuring that his team was able to focus on the game as well as the occasion. “I’m sure we’ll see a terrific hockey atmosphere,” he said. “But this is going to be a tense game for us because we need to win to stay in playoff contention.”
His opposite number, Andrei Sidorenko, has no such playoff worries to contend with – but was facing an injury crisis. Seven unfit Minsk players had the 59-year-old joking about pulling on his own skates to make up the numbers.
“As for motivation, we’re now working on our selections for Team Belarus,” he said. “I’m giving plenty of game time to our younger players. That’s partly because injuries don’t give me many choices, but if you look at the top teams we’ve played in January and February, our guys haven’t looked too bad at all.”
Riga delivered in this must-win game, picking up a vital victory that keeps it just two points away from a playoff place. In front of a crowd of 9,500 at the High School No. 84 Sports Complex in the Latvian capital, the host took a first-period lead and never looked back as it had too much for Minsk.
Gints Meija opened the scoring in the 11th minute when he got to the rebound from an Emils Gegeris shot and scooped a backhander past Jhonas Enroth. The second period saw Riga move 2-0 in front thanks to Oskars Batnja, who added to his first-period assist when he redirected a Roberts Lipsbergs shot past the Swedish goalie. Fans with memories of last year, though, would recall how Minsk clawed back a two-goal deficit to win the first Winter Ice Break game. When Oleg Yevenko got one back for the visitor a few minutes later, there was some cause for concern but this time the host would not be caught.
In the final stanza, Vitalijs Pavlovs teased the Minsk defense before a kind bounce sent the puck to Andris Dzerins who stood all alone on the slot and beat Enroth. Riga might even have had a fourth: Kristaps Sotnieks won a penalty shot when he was hauled down by Jonathon Blum, but Lauris Darzins was unable to convert the opportunity.