Wasn’t That A Party!
And so another KHL season is in the books, and for the second time in three years the Gagarin Cup will spend its summer on the banks of the Ural River amid the forges and foundries of Magnitogorsk. The record book will show that Metallurg Magnitogorsk defeated CSKA Moscow 3-1 in today’s winner-take-all Game 7, but there’s more to the story than just that. Read on, as we look back at a fascinating end to one of the best Finals in living memory!
The decisive game, at the CSKA Ice Palace on Moscow’s Leningradsky Prospekt, began with a roar from the home side, as CSKA laid siege to the Metallurg end of the ice almost from the opening faceoff. Their best early chance arrived when a long shot sifted through to clank off the post behind Magnitogorsk netminder Vasily Koshechkin. Stéphane Da Costa, following up hard, failed to tap in the rebound and then collided hard with the post himself. And, shortly thereafter, CSKA were punished for their first real mistake of the game. A broken play in the neutral zone drew all five red sweaters into one small area, and Metallurg’s Yevgeny Timkin alertly leapt into the open space and accepted a breakaway pass from Chris Lee. Timkin’s finish past Ilya Sorokin in the CSKA net was clinical and unstoppable, and Metallurg were ahead 1-0. CSKA went right back to work generating five-bell chances, but the first period ended with them still behind, despite having outshot Metallurg 13-2 in the frame.
The early part of the second period saw Metallurg in better form, but it remained very much CSKA’s game. As in the first 20 minutes, however, the equalizing goal remained elusive, at least for a time. Shots went wide or were blocked, and those that did make their way through found Koshechkin equal to his task.
Finally, with six minutes left in the period, CSKA got their reward. Metallurg were caught on a line change, allowing Geoff Platt to sprint away into the clear for a good chance. Koshechkin once again made the save, but could only kick the rebound into the slot just as Maxim Mamin arrived on the scene. Mamin went forehand to backhand and fired the puck into the roof of the net — all square at one apiece, and the goal-scorer’s expression of relief spoke volumes.
Here we must give some credit to Metallurg. A lesser team, having been under the gun all night and with their defences finally breached, might have collapsed. But the boys from Magnitogorsk showed their resilience, and three minutes later they were ahead again. Danis Zaripov nipped into a scrum along the boards, chipping the loose puck down to Jan Kovář behind the CSKA goal. The young Czech forward spotted Lee pinching in from the point, teed him up with a perfect pass, and then celebrated as Lee’s shot whipped past Sorokin to make the score 2-1. And so the second period ended as it had begun: CSKA in charge, but down by a goal. Shots on goal through 40 minutes were 26-11 for the home team.
In the final frame CSKA, now fueled by desperation as much as anything, continued to batter away at Koshechkin and the Metallurg defence. True, the visitors did carve out a chance or two, and Sergei Mozyakin could have added his name to the scoresheet on a couple of occasions if not for some good work by Sorokin. But it looked a matter of “when” not “if” we would be at 2-2.
Time grew tight, and the tension ratcheted up even higher than it already was. Up in the stands, Metallurg GM Gennady Velichkin sought the intervention of a higher power. A mad scramble in front of Koshechkin led to a heap of bodies in the goal crease, but still the puck stayed out. Vladimir Zharkov got free down the left, but the perfectly-positioned Metallurg ‘keeper took his shot right in the logo and held on. A blast from distance then found its way through; somehow, with enemies right at the gate, Koshechkin knocked it down and smothered it.
Sorokin headed to the bench for an extra attacker, and the puck continued to hum around the Metallurg net. But then — the coup de grace. With only 45 seconds left, the Magnitogorskians managed to clear the puck down the ice. Timkin set off in pursuit, pestered CSKA’s Bogdan Kiselevich into a bad turnover, and gratefully deposited the disk into the empty net for his second goal of the night. 3-1 for Metallurg, and that, as they say, was all she wrote. A few moments later it was over, and Metallurg are once again champions of the KHL. The two-goal man, incidentally, was as unlikely a hero for his team as Mikhail Yunkov had been for CSKA in Game 6; Timkin had recorded only a single assist in the 22 playoff games prior to today, and scored just 4-3-7 in 60 regular season games.
Cue delirium from the men in blue, and despondency from those in red. Mozyakin and Zaripov accepted the Cup from Vladislav Tretyak and KHL President Dmitri Chernyshenko, touching off wild celebrations on the ice and amongst the travelling support. The CSKA players, meanwhile, quietly left the ice, some of them not even waiting to receive their silver medals. Later, in civvies, they re-emerged to greet and shake hands with with those of their fans who had remained in the building. Alexander Radulov, who was -3 on the night, took responsibility for the defeat, although he is probably guilty of being too hard on himself there. Radulov posted a goal and four assists in the Final, which is fine though not spectacular by his standards, and his skill and hard work were on display throughout; he was particularly key to CSKA’s Game 6 victory that extended the series to seven games in the first place.
We should pause to spare a moment of empathy for CSKA, who can legitimately claim to have been the best team in the KHL this season, and whose 12-1 rampage through the first three rounds of playoffs was impressive to watch. The crushed expressions of the players in red at the final horn of Game 7 said it all: they had done nearly everything right in the match, but it was just not their day and they were coming away with nothing. The game statistics bear that idea out; CSKA fired at the Metallurg goal 103 times in Game 7, with 37 of those pucks requiring Koshechkin’s attention. The victors, meanwhile, mustered a mere 34 attempts of their own, and troubled Sorokin directly with only 16 of those. In this game at least, it must be admitted that the better team did not win, and so CSKA’s long wait for a post-Soviet championship will go on for at least another season.
This is not to say, however, that Metallurg Magnitogorsk are undeserving of the title — far from it. The first six games of this magnificent final series had already established that both teams were more than worthy of the final honours, and it was always going to be something of a rough justice for whichever of the two ended up in second place. Metallurg showed their experience and level-headedness in rebounding from a disastrous performance in Game 1’s 5-1 defeat to take Game 2. Then, having fallen behind again after Game 3, they once again leveled the series in the fourth match. And Games 5 and 6 saw them battle right to the end, scoring late in both encounters to force overtime. Metallurg may have had some luck on their side in winning Game 7, but this was a very good team that played a lot of brilliant hockey down the stretch.
The playoff Most Valuable Player award went to Mozyakin, and that too is a deserved honour. Certainly there were other candidates to consider; neither Koshechkin nor Sorokin, to name but two, would have raised eyebrows had they been named MVP, as both recorded save percentages north of .930 in the Final. But Mozyakin led the KHL this post-season in goals (11), points (25), plus/minus (+14, tied with team-mate Yevgeny Biryukov), and game-winning goals (5). And in Games 5 and 6 he either scored or assisted on all of his team’s four goals. It’s amazing stuff, especially when we consider that he began the post-season in a deep slump and did not notch his first point until four games into the opening round. He may be 35 years old, but he plays at an extraordinary level, and long may he continue to do so!
Some more-or-less random historical notes about the series and some of its participants:
- Danis Zaripov has become the first player to win the Gagarin Cup four times. He was part of the Metallurg triumph in 2014, after earning rings with Ak Bars Kazan in 2009 and 2010.
- Today’s game was the 114th KHL post-season contest for Biryukov, setting a new record. The 30-year-old defenceman has played all of them in a Metallurg sweater.
- Metallurg Coach Ilya Vorobyov, at 41 years old, is now the youngest Gagarin-Cup-winning bench boss in KHL history. Vorobyov, you may recall, replaced Mike Keenan at Metallurg earlier this season.
- This is the fifth Gagarin Cup for teams from the East (two each for Metallurg and Ak Bars, plus one for Salavat Yulaev Ufa). From the West, Dynamo Moscow have won it twice, and SKA St. Petersburg once.
- We noted it yesterday, but this is the fifth of eight Gagarin Cup Finals to go the full seven games — a pretty good ratio, from the standpoint of excitement!
I will close off here with a few thoughts about the Final series. I described it above as magnificent, and — at the risk of gushing — it was all that and more. Consider some facts: both teams led the series on two different occasions. Five of the seven games were decided by a single goal, and it would have been six were it not for Timkin’s empty-netter in today’s match. Three games went to overtime, and in two of those the tying goal arrived in the final 65 seconds of the third period (in the other, it was scored with about six minutes left). And the Final was full of spectacular individual performances. We have already discussed Mozyakin and the two goalies, but CSKA’s Nikita Zaitsev scored six points in the first three games of the series, the unsung Yunkov and Timkin chipped in at the most key moments, and I could name any number of others. In short, the KHL could not have asked for a better advertisement for its hockey.
So congratulations to Metallurg Magnitogorsk, and to CSKA Moscow, and here’s looking forward already to what 2016-17 may hold! Thank you for reading, and here are the extended highlights of today’s game!