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Baltic Handball League
Weekend of draws and shining goalkeepers
Coaches, players and specialists have mentioned the Baltic Handball League being exceptionally evenly balanced this season. The last weekend provided another proof to this as four out of nine matches ended in a draw. The two days also saw goalkeepers shining brightly in most of the games.
It was not just the draws that provided fascinating games. On Saturday, the champion of last four years Cocks Riihimäki suffered their first defeat of the season. Having won all 12 previous encounters against ZRHK Tenax Dobele, the title-holders succumbed to a 31:30 loss in Riga.
Latvian success over two days
Tenax started the match brightly and Aivis Jurdžs put them 6:3 up, extending the lead to four goals at 12:8. Cocks pulled back and went into half-time in a 15:14 lead after Teemu Tamminen's goal. It was 36-year-old Jurdžs again, who put Tenax ahead and Cocks never managed to get the lead back.
Tenax was 28:25 in front, but it was Tamminen who equalized when 40 seconds was left on the clock. National team pivot Egils Politers scored Tenax's 31:30 winner eight seconds before the final whistle. Jurdžs recorded eight goals for the winners and Aleksandar Gugleta scored seven for Finnish champions.
The day later, Estonian and Latvian champions produced a very entertaining match in Dobele. Serviti Põlva had a 25:23 lead, but again Politers and Jurdžs were the heroes and the teams shared points with a 26:26 draw. Politers and Nikita Pančenko scored seven for the hosts, while Henri Sillaste was Serviti's best with five goals.
Blome: Raitis Purinš locked his goal and throw away the key
The other Latvian team Celtnieks Riga also collected three points in Group B over the weekend. A 29:29 draw with HC Tallinn on Saturday was followed by a 32:28 win over HC Kehra/Horizon Pulp&Paper on the next day. The heroes of Celtnieks were their goalkeeper Raitis Purinš with incredible saves and BHL top scorer Aliaksei Haisa, scoring 21 goals.
"A very positive weekend for us. Three points in games, where all three teams were very wounded, all of us had three-four key players missing. In addition we lost Artis Kurmens against Tallinn and even Aliaksei Haisa played with an injury," commented Normunds Blome, team manager of Celtnieks.
"Especially against Tallinn our hero was of course Raitis Purinš, who at some point put a big lock on his goal and throw away the key. We must also be grateful to Viljandi, who took points away from Kehra and Tallinn, so we are very hopeful we can manage to qualify to the play-offs this season," added Blome.
Cocks improved on Sunday
BHL champion Cocks bounced quickly back from their defeat against Tenax, as on Sunday they fell 3:1 behind against Dragunas Klaipeda, but then put up a very good performance with young Belarussian Aliaksandr Markelau shining in goal and run away with a 35:25 win over Lithuanian champions. Tamminen, Nico Rönnberg and Vitalie Nenita all scored six goals, while Deividas Virbauskas and Gytis Šmantauskas had five for Dragunas.
"Obviously we would have liked more points from this long trip, but on Saturday we did not play well in defence and Tenax was very good. We did not make a tragedy out of the defeat, spoke with players in between the two games and made correct conclusions," said Cocks' head coach Gintaras Savukynas.
"Players clearly wanted to rehabilitate themselves and on Sunday the fighting spirit was excellent. Defensively we did a great game and our goalkeepers were in fact good on both days. It was nice to finish the BHL year with a win, but obviously the most important matches take place in spring," added Savukynas.
Dragunas did taste success the day before however. Serviti was 27:24 ahead after 53 minutes, but a strong finish saw Lithuanian side take a 31:28 win. Virbauskas was again the top scorer for his side with seven goals, as Alfred Timmo recorded eight for Serviti, who had nine two-minute suspensions given by Latvian referees.
Two draws for two Estonian teams
The real "draw group" was Group B, where three out of five matches ended with teams sharing points. Viljandi HC ended their run of seven defeats in BHL and gained first points of the season, twice playing against domestic rivals. On both occasions the opponents scored the final goal to draw the match, so in fact Viljandi was close to gain their first BHL win in 17 games.
On Saturday, Viljandi played 28:28 against HC Kehra/Horizon Pulp&Paper with Kristo Järve and Mikk Varik on target six times, as Anton Barouski scored the same amount for visitors. The day later the result against HC Tallinn was 24:24 and this time 42-year-old veteran Järve scored ten goals, while 22 years younger goalkeeper Marten Tamme produced excellent saves over the two days.
HC Tallinn was the second Estonian team, who ended the weekend with two draws, against Celtnieks and Viljandi. In fact they now have three draws in a row in BHL. Missing several key players, Tallinn's wing players were on fire, as Enrico Anton scored nine goals on Saturday and Rauno Aus recorded eight on both days.
In a Lithuanian-derby on Saturday, VHC Šviesa Vilnius came back from being 8:3 down midway through the first half and beat Granitas-Karys Kaunas by 30:27 at home. Šarunas Ugianskis scored 11 goals for the hosts and Dovydas Kuodys nine for the visitors.
On photo: Goalkeeper Raitis Purinš was the key to Celtnieks Riga taking three points against Estonian clubs during the weekend. (Photo: Celtnieks).