KHL Playoffs: That, As They Say, Is That
After SKA St. Petersburg’s amazing comeback in the KHL West Conference Final against CSKA Moscow, the actual Gagarin Cup Final was always likely to be an anticlimax. Nonetheless, some interesting questions were in the air as the series between SKA and Ak Bars Kazan opened last Saturday. Would SKA’s miraculous feat in the previous round leave them with tanks empty, too physically and emotionally exhausted to breach the notoriously stingy Ak Bars defense? Or would it imbue the team from old Leningrad with the confidence and vigour necessary to bring the city its first ever hockey championship? In the end, as you may guess from the picture above, it was most definitively the latter.
Below the jump, a look back at the 2014-15 Gagarin Cup Final!
It was clear from the beginning of Game 1 that SKA were still feeling their oats from the previous series. They scampered out to a 4-0 lead at the Tatneft Arena in Kazan, with the top line of Artemy Panarin, Yevgeny Dadonov, and Vadim Shipachyov scoring once each (Patrick Thoresen had the other). Only two Ak Bars goals as time wound down made the final score a respectable 4-2. Game 2 saw Ak Bars recover their equilibrium somewhat, as the match turned into one of the tight defensive battles for which the Tatarstan team is renowned. This time, however, they got beaten at their own game. A first period tally by SKA depth player Anton Burdasov stood up as the only goal of the contest, and St. Petersburg goalie Mikko Koskinen made several spectacular saves off the 19 shots he faced. A surprising 1-0 final scoreline in favour of SKA, and they found themselves with a 2-0 series lead heading back to St. Petersburg.
Ak Bars now absolutely had to snatch a win on the road, and they managed it in Game 3. The match resembled the second of the series: tight defense, few big chances, and a lone SKA goal, this one by Tony Mårtensson, separating the teams as the game moved into the late stages. But on this occasion, Ak Bars found what they needed. The tying goal came from an unlikely source; defensive defenseman Yevgeny Medvedev had scored only 36 times in 418 KHL games, but his point shot deflected off an opponent and found the back of the net. Then it was Alexander Svitov’s turn. The former third overall NHL draft pick fired off the most routine of wrist shots, but Koskinen, unusually for him, simply missed it. Svitov’s goal stood up as the winner, 2-1 the final score, and Ak Bars were right back in the series.
“Not so fast,” said Ilya Kovalchuk, and SKA’s captain took over proceedings in Game 4. First, he set up Thoresen in the first minute to put his team in front. The always-dangerous Oscar Möller equalized for Ak Bars at precisely the halfway mark of the game, and so Kovalchuk went back to work, this time playing provider for a Jimmy Eriksson goal to put SKA on top again. Two assists for Kovalchuk on two goals, and he got his third of the game when SKA went ahead by two through Dadonov as the third period began. Justin Azevedo made St. Petersburg hearts flutter a bit when got Ak Bars to within one in the final minute, but 3-2 it ended, and so SKA came into today’s Game 5 in Kazan looking to finish the series off.
Finish it off they did, and promptly. The match was largely over as a contest by the time the first intermission rolled around. First Eriksson skated on to a loose puck a minute in and simply smashed it past Anders Nilsson in the Ak Bars goal. SKA hit the crossbar behind Nilsson shortly thereafter, but it was not long before they were up by two, as Kovalchuk’s powerplay one-timer hummed past the screened netminder. Dadonov, then, stole the puck from Ak Bars defenseman Vladimir Denisov at the SKA blueline, skated in on Nilsson all alone, and set a new KHL record for goals in a single playoffs (it was his 15th). SKA did not stop there, either, as Alexei Ponikarovsky’s long-distance wrist shot somehow made it through Nilsson’s legs — 4-0 read the scoreboard, and the game was not yet 15 minutes old.
The sun came out again briefly for Ak Bars as the second period opened, when Mikhail Glukhov scored to get them within three, but it was a brief respite. Kovalchuk found the puck in the neutral zone, skated in, and snapped it home for his second goal of the game. It was another eminently stoppable shot, and Ak Bars coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov finally brought Nilsson’s night to a merciful end — questions will be asked about why he did not do it earlier. We do need to spare some sympathy for Nilsson; it is sad and somewhat unfair that his splendid run in the playoffs came to such calamity. The Swedish netminder recorded six shutouts in ten games at one point, and brought a hefty .952 save percentage into the Finals. But it must also be said that he was second-best to Koskinen in this series, and today was most certainly not his day. In came Emil Garipov, a bit of a forgotten man this year after leading the KHL in sv% in 2013-14, for his first action of the post-season.
At this point, if it had not already, the countdown was on. Ak Bars had to know they were beaten, and they played like it, while SKA were mostly content simply not to let anything silly happen. In this they succeeded, and the celebration had already started on their bench when Roman Červenka squeezed the puck past Garipov with minute to go to make the final score 6-1. And then it was done, and SKA St. Petersburg, most deservedly, are 2014-15 Gagarin Cup champions.
Kovalchuk was named MVP — in a classy gesture, he handed the trophy to Dadonov, the record-breaking goal-scorer. SKA certainly provided no shortage of outstanding performances in these playoffs, and we have to tip our hats to head coach Vyacheslav Bykov. Under his tutelage, SKA were better than Ak Bars everywhere on the ice during the Final. Certainly the scoring threats of Dadonov, Panarin, Thoresen, Kovalchuk, et al were at their best, but Bykov deserves at least some of the credit for the fine work done by the likes of Anton Belov back on the defense. As for Ak Bars, without a doubt they are despondent at this point, but a trip to the Final has to go down as a good season. Bilyaletdinov is known as a defensive specialist, as he was in his playing days, and he will be back at it next year. Do not be surprised if Ak Bars make a return to this stage of the competition in 12 months’ time.
And so that is all she wrote for 2014-15, the seventh season of the Kontinental Hockey League! There will, of course, be much to discuss during the off-season; players and coaches will come and go, and of course there are the effects of the current economic tough times on the league and its membership. We will address those as they occur, and you can also look forward to a resumption of the historical posts here at his blog. And I would like to take this opportunity to thank all of you for reading, and discussing, and generally being wonderful!
Congratulations to SKA St. Petersburg, 2014-15 Gagarin Cup Champions, and to Ak Bars Kazan as honourable runners-up!