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Baltic Handball League
Lithuanian clubs almost had a full house
Eight important matches were played over the course of the weekend in Baltic Handball League. Lithuanian clubs came out almost with a "full house", using poker terms, as they won four and drew one of the five matches being involved. ZTR Zaporozhye also added two victories to their tally, while HC Kehra/Horizon Pulp&Paper collected a derby-win.
The focus of the weekend was on Group B, where the fight for two top places – allowing advancement to the quarter-finals – intensified. With the final weekend on 22-23 February, VHC Šviesa Vilnius is leading with 12, HC Kehra/Horizon Pulp&Paper has 11, Celtnieks Riga and Granitas-Karys Kaunas 10 points, but Latvian side has only one match to be played.
Granitas-Karys and Šviesa enjoyed home success
On Saturday, former EHF Cup winner Granitas-Karys took on Celtnieks, who they had not beaten in previous five BHL meetings. The Latvians got a better start, led 6:4, fell behind 8:6, but still won the first half 14:13 and took a 17:14 lead early in the second. Then Lithuanian side kept a clean sheet for eight minutes and run away with 30:26 win.
It was not easier on the following day for Kaunas' team, even if the visitors Viljandi HC had not won a BHL match for 18 games. Young Estonian team put up an excellent fight for most of the match, but in the final eight minutes Granitas-Karys were stronger and won 28:22. Modestas Štarolis was Granitas' best scorer on both days with eight goals.
Leader of the Group B, Šviesa just held on to their lead. On the first day they beat Viljandi with a clear margin of 39:23, but it was a different story on Sunday. Šviesa had won the first encounter of the two teams in November by 34:33 and it was not far for the match to finish with the same scoreline.
Celtnieks took a 10:6 lead by 13th minute, but lost it and the high-scoring first half ended to host's favour by 20:18. Šviesa held on to their lead until 55th minute, when Arturs Klavinš made it 31:31 and the match ended in a 33:33 draw. Valdas Drabavičius scored nine goals on first day and Laurynas Palevičius the same amount the day later for Šviesa, while Klavinš and Rihards Leja recorded six goals for the Latvians.
Kehra kept hopes alive with a win over Tallinn
There was an Estonian derby in Group B on Saturday, as HC Kehra/Horizon Pulp&Paper hosted HC Tallinn. The visitors had strengthened their squad with Sten Toomla, returning after a long career and more than thousand league goals in Finland, but were without key defensive players in Markus Viitkar and Rainer Kelk, as well as winger Enrico Anton.
It was an even game until 16th minute, when the score was 6:6. After that, Tallinn only managed to score one goal in the remaining time of the first half with Kehra taking a 13:7 lead. They never let that slip and won 25:21 with Ukrainian playmaker Vladyslav Naumenko the top scorer with seven goals.
"Tallinn missed two very important players in their defensive system and it showed in their performance. But we played a good game ourselves, especially I can praise our Russian goalkeeper Viktor Nikolaev and our defence. We took a clear lead in the first half and after that it was easier," commented Kehra's head coach Mart Raudsepp.
"We had a good win and this gives confidence to the players, that we are moving in the right direction. Now the final weekend on 22-23 February brings the Lithuanian clubs to Kehra and they are also fighting for places in the quarter-finals. I hope our good form continues," added Raudsepp.
Dragunas and ZTR the winners in Group A
In Group A there was a very important match on Sunday, as Serviti Põlva hosted Dragunas Klaipeda. The champions of Estonia and Lithuania were on three points prior to the game with the fifth place and final quarter-final spot on the balance. Serviti fell behind early in the game and never got the lead, but at half-time it was 16:15 for Dragunas.
Goals from Deividas Virbauskas and counter-attacks by Mykolas Lapiniauskas helped Dragunas to a 20:16 lead and by 41st minute it was already 23:17. Serviti did not get closer than three goals and lost 29:26. Henri Sillaste was the best scorer with nine goals, while Deividas Virbauskas was accurate seven times.
With only three matches of Group A played this weekend, ZTR Zaporozhye was the biggest winner. Last year's runner-up defeated Serviti 24:23 on Saturday and ZRHK Tenax Dobele 30:25 the day later. Vladyslav Zalevskiy scored five goals for ZTR on the first day and Oleksandr Tilte nine on Sunday.
ZTR moved on top of the Group A with 11 points, but title-holder Cocks Riihimäki has nine and SKA Minsk seven points, having played one and two games less respectively. Next week some hugely important postponed matches will be held, as SKA travels to Põlva and Riihimäki, while Dragunas and Tenax will meet in Klaipeda.
BHL standings: https://www.baltichandball.net/standings
On photo: Granitas-Karys Kaunas took two victories over the weekend with Modestas Štarolis scoring 16 goals in the process. (Photo: RK Granitas).