Clear leaders, middling feistiness and a struggling rear – Optibet Hokeja Liga as of January 1st

Clear leaders, middling feistiness and a struggling rear – Optibet Hokeja Liga as of January 1st

03 Jan 2024 | Kristers Rozenlauks
 

A summary of what has happened so far in the Baltic league, Optibet Hokeja Liga

 
 
 
 

The year 2024 has finally arrived, signaling the return of the Baltic Hockey League! The last game played in the league so far was less than two weeks ago, with Panter grabbing a 4-3 overtime win at home in Tallinn against Kaunas City. The upcoming games will be vital for multiple teams, as the reduction of the amount of teams in the playoffs has made the games for teams in the middle of the pack much more intense. This article will delve into every team’s performance so far, showcasing how the league has shaped up until this point.

Act like a champion, be a champion – HK Zemgale/LBTU

The two-time Latvian champions look to make it three in a row, as they enter the new year with 38 out of a possible maximum of 40 points. Only Kurbads (1-2OT) and Prizma (4-5OT) have been able to defeat the Jelgava-based team, which has yet to lose a game in regulation. They look to be well on their way to finishing first in the regular season, and anyone they face in the playoffs will be up against it to defeat the league’s best offence (117 GF, 5.85 G/GP) & 2nd best defense in the league (42 GA, 2.1GAA). The absence of veteran forward Martins Karsums, who left for the Tolzer Lowen in the German 3rd tier, will surely be felt. Karsums set up 11 goals and scored 7 himself over the 11 games he played for Zemgale this season.

Whichever team faces Zemgale in the semi-finals may be able to surprise them, however, as the TOP-2 teams in the league don’t play in the quarterfinals. It’s up to the team’s strong coaching staff, led by head coach Artis Abols, to prepare them for the play-offs.

  • Top Scorer – Gatis Gricinskis – 35YO -10 Goals – 17 Assists – 27 Total Points
  • Top U23 Scorer – Rinalds Vutkevics – 19YO – 12 Goals – 13 Assists – 25 Total Points
  • Top Goalie – Mariuss Bajaruns-Galejs – 21YO – 14GP – 2.13 GAA – .906 SV%

Upcoming 3 games:

  • Home vs Airwell Energija (6 Jan @ 17:00)
  • Away vs HC Panter (13 Jan @ 18:10)
  • Home vs Prizma (17 Jan @ 19:30)

Constant threat – HK Mogo/LSPA

Mogo is the other of the two teams in the close chase for first place in the regular season, trailing Zemgale by just 4 points. Three of the league’s top 5 scorers play for Mogo, with Kaspars Ziemins and Deivids Sarkanis taking fourth and third place with 28 and 31 points respectively, while veteran forward Gints Meija ranks in first place with 33 points in just 16 games played. Their defense is nothing to be scoffed at either, as they’ve only let in 38 goals this season – the best in the Optibet Hockey League. While Mogo tries to chase down Zemgale for first place, they have got to keep an eye out for their rivals Kurbads, who may be able to overtake Mogo, should the tides change.
Mogo’s young forward Olivers Murnieks deserves a special mention – the 15(!!!)-year-old has 11 points in 12 games played so far, having made his debut this season. Murnieks is seen as one of Latvia’s best, if not the best, prospect for the 2026 NHL draft, and his team can depend on him to consistently make the right plays on both sides of the ice.

  • Top Scorer – Gints Meija – 36YO – 20 Goals – 13 Assists – 33 Total Points
  • Top U23 Scorer – Kaspars Ziemins – 21YO – 10 Goals – 18 Assists – 28 Total Points
  • Top Goalie – Henrijs Ancs – 33YO – 16GP – 1.85 GAA – .923 SV%

Upcoming 3 games:

  • Away vs HK Kurbads (13 Jan @ 19:00)
  • Home vs HK Zemgale/LBTU (20 Jan @ 13:30)
  • Home vs HS Riga (24 Jan @ 19:15)

Youth, quality, inconsistency – HK Kurbads

Kurbads returned to the Optibet Hockey League after taking a “two year long holiday” in the Estonian league, where they lost in the finals in 2022 and triumphed in 2023. Interestingly, Kurbads only lost one game to an Estonian team over that entire season, falling 3-4 in overtime in the second game of the Estonian league finals against HC Panter, who would end up joining the Optibet Hockey League at the same time as Kurbads for the current season.

While the team clearly has hints of the quality it had multiple years ago, when Kurbads was one of the leading teams in the league, this season has not gone as smoothly as the team would have liked. The team currently stands in third place, with 12 wins in 21 games played (28 points), having dropped points against teams like Kaunas City and Prizma. One of their biggest issues has been inconsistency, letting up too many defensive mistakes at critical moments in games and not being able to take a firm control over games against weaker teams.

Their starting goalie Arginto Milbergs has been vital in many of the team’s wins earlier in the season, but it seems as if their opponents have managed to crack his weak spots, abusing the goalie’s short stature.

While Kurbads may end up among the top-2 teams in the league, it is much more likely that they may focus on primarily retaining their third place in the regular season.

  • Top Scorer – Arturs Ozolins – 35YO – 11 Goals – 15 Assists – 26 Total Points
  • Top U23 Scorer – Matiss Birins – 20YO – 7 Goals – 6 Assists – 13 Total Points
  • Top Goalie – Arginto Milbergs – 20YO – 18GP – 2.53 GAA – .909 SV%

Upcoming 3 games:

  • Away vs HS Riga (4 Jan @ 19:00)
  • Away vs Prizma (9 Jan @ 19:00)
  • Home vs Mogo (13 Jan @ 19:00)

The hungry Estonian Panters

Panter has become the first Estonian team to join the Latvian top tier since the Big Diamonds Tartu team in the 2007-08 season, which finished 6th out of 7 teams. While they may be doing better than their predecessors, currently holding 4th place in the league with 26 points in 23 games, the team needs to upkeep their strong play in order to retain their spot. Prizma & HS Riga are both hot on the tail of the Panters, with both teams having a 3 and 5 game advantage respectively over the Estonians. Their top lines have been quite productive, though their defense has had some unpatched holes. Despite being the third highest scoring team in the league, Panter has a goal differential of just +5 – the fourth worst in the league. If Panter wants to find more success, they will have to clean up their defensive issues quick, or else they may soon be overtaken.

Very interestingly, the team’s starting goalie has been 22YO Canadian Jesse Makaj, who last played hockey in the 2019-20 season for the Wenatchee Wild. It has been quite an intriguing return to hockey for the young goalie, who got ranked as the #19 North American Goalie at the 2019 NHL Draft.

  • Top Scorer – Daniil Fursa – 26YO – 9 Goals – 18 Assists – 27 Total Points
  • Top U23 Scorer – Danil Tsarkovskyi – 20YO – 8 Goals – 17 Asists – 25 Total Points
  • Top Goalie – Jesse Makaj – 22YO – 12GP – 2.94 GAA – .897 SV%

Upcoming 3 games:

  • Away vs Vilnius Hockey Punks (6 Jan @ 18:30)
  • Away vs Vilnius Hockey Punks (7 Jan @ 14:30)
  • Home vs HK Zemgale/LBTU (13 Jan @ 18:10)

Unpredictable Prizma

Despite losing the team’s top scorer Patriks Zabusovs, who left for HK Dukla Michalovce in the Slovak top tier, Prizma has continued to do relatively well in the Optibet Hockey League. One striking difficulty the team has faced is complete inconsistency in their performances. While they have been able to defeat Kurbads with a score of 6-2 in an earlier game, Prizma has also managed to lose 3-6 to HS Riga and were barely able to pull away from the worst team in the league, Vilnius, with a score of 6-3. While this likely may be enough for the team to qualify for the play-offs and possibly even win in the first round, depending on the opponents they’ll face, Prizma will certainly have to solve this issue quickly if they want to harbor any hopes of reaching the finals.

It can be said that Prizma’s veterans are underperforming this season, with many top scorers from previous seasons only getting around a point per game played. While the team’s defense is average, their scoring might not be enough to make up for it as the season nears it’s end. Nevertheless, if Prizma find themselves on a good run, they could challenge for a spot in the second round of the play-offs.

  • Top Scorer – Patriks Zabusovs – 22YO – 13 Goals – 8 Assists – 21 Total Points
  • Top U23 Scorer – Patriks Zabusovs – 22YO – 13 Goals – 8 Assists – 21 Total Points
  • Top Goalie – Janis Auzins – 32YO – 15GP – 2.89 GAA – .906 SV%

Upcoming 3 games:

  • Away vs Kaunas City (3 Jan @ 19:30)
  • Home vs HK Kurbads (9 Jan @ 19:00)
  • Home vs Vilnius Hockey Punks (13 Jan @ 13:00)

Power of youth – HS Riga

HS Riga’s fortunes can go either way in the second half of the season. With their 20 points in 18 games, they could theoretically catch up to and overtake both Prizma and Panter, though a few bad games would result in Kaunas overtaking the Latvian U18 national team’s Base club for the last play-off spot. If Hockey School Riga wants to head to the play-offs for the second year in a row, they’ll need to work hard in the upcoming games.

Riga’s defense has been incredibly strong this year, being the third best with just 57 goals allowed, though their offense has not helped them anywhere near as much. Their 64 goals scored results in them being the fourth worst team in terms of scoring ability. The performances of forwards Maksims Pumpins and Antons Macijevskis, as well as defensemen Krists Retenais and Oskars Briedis, will be a major contributor to the team’s offense in their last 14 games of the season.

  • *Top Scorers – Maksims Pumpins & Antons Macijevskis – 17YO – 9 Goals – 10 Assists – 19 Total Points
  • *Top U23 Scorers – Maksims Pumpins & Antons Macijevskis – 17YO – 9 Goals – 10 Assists – 19 Total Points
  • Top Goalie – Mikus Vecvanags – 17YO – 4GP – 1.51 GAA – .945 SV%

*- Stats are the exact same

Upcoming 3 games:

  • Home vs HK Kurbads (4 Jan @ 19:00)
  • Home vs Kaunas City (6 Jan @ 19:00)
  • Home vs Kaunas City (7 Jan @ 13:30)

Feisty Kaunas City

Kaunas City, last year’s Lithuanian champions, have shown the most improvement in the offseason. Some of their most notable signings have included Ondrej Machala and Michal Machac, who have picked up 31 points & 26 points respectively in the team’s 18 played games. However, it hasn’t been enough for the team to consistently succeed at this level, with the team’s overall scoring not being at the level needed as of now. Almost a third (20 of 62) of all of Kaunas’s goals scored this year have come from the stick of Ondrej Machala, who had spent most of his career up to this point in the Czech top & 2nd tier.

Kaunas is still in reach of a play-off spot, but they will need to get better depth scoring from the team’s other lines. Otherwise, they will not be able to get into the playoffs without Machala scoring twice as many, if not even three times as many, goals as he has currently. Their two upcoming games against HS Riga will be very important for further success for either team, and may just be the decider come the end of the season.

  • Top Scorer – Ondrej Machala – 24YO – 20 Goals – 11 Assists – 31 Total Points
  • Top U23 Scorer – Denys Honcharenko – 21YO – 6 Goals – 5 Assists – 11 Total Points
  • Top Goalie – Sergei Pisarenko – 27YO – 17GP – 4.26 GAA – .883 SV%

Upcoming 3 games:

  • Home vs Prizma (3 Jan @ 19:30)
  • Away vs HS Riga (6 Jan @ 19:00)
  • Away vs HS Riga (7 Jan @ 13:30)

Bottom-of-the-table Strugglers – Airwell Energija & Vilnius Hockey Punks

Both Airwell Energija and the Vilnius Hockey Punks have had terrible seasons so far. Energija Has picked up just 3 wins, while Vilnius has gone without winning for 22 games as of now, nearing Dinaburga’s record last season of 25 losses in a row. Both teams have been hopelessly outmatched, with Energija having a goal differential of -62 and Vilnius with -110. Neither of these teams have any mirages left of a possible shot at the play-offs anymore.

Airwell Energija:

  • Top Scorer – Tadas Kumeliauskas – 33YO – 11 Goals – 8 Assists – 19 Total Points
  • Top U23 Scorer – Dovydas Laimutis – 20YO – 5 Goals – 5 Assists – 10 Total Points
  • Top Goalie – Maxim Duve – 23YO – 20GP – 5.05 GAA – .876 SV%

Upcoming 3 games:

  • Away vs HK Zemgale/LBTU (6 Jan @ 17:00)
  • Home vs Kaunas City (10 Jan @ 19:30)
  • Away vs Vilnius Hockey Punks (18 Jan @ 19:30)

Vilnius Hockey Punks:

  • Top Scorer – Samuel Blanchet – 31YO – 6 Goals – 13 Assists – 19 Total Points
  • Top U23 Scorer – Timonas Mazulis – 22YO – 2 Goals – 2 Assists – 4 Total Points
  • Top Goalie – Artur Pavliukov – 26YO – 16GP – 6.48 GAA – .854 SV%

Upcoming 3 games:

  • Home vs HC Panter (6 Jan @ 18:30)
  • Home vs HC Panter (7 Jan @ 14:30)
  • Away vs Prizma (13 Jan @ 13:00)

League Standings

TeamGPTPWL+/-
HK Zemgale/LBTU203818275
HK Mogo/LSPA203415578
HK Kurbads212812923
HC Panter232613105
Prizma20241287
HS Riga18201087
Kaunas City1813612-23
Airwell Energija206317-62
Vilnius Hockey Punks221022-110

Top Scorers

TeamNameAgeGATP
HK Mogo/LSPAGints Meija36201333
Kaunas CityOndrej Machala24201131
HK Mogo/LSPADeivids Sarkanis29131831
HK Mogo/LSPAKaspars Ziemins21101828
HK Zemgale/LBTUGatis Gricinskis35101727

Article originally posted at https://latvianpuckparadise.wordpress.com/
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