All Square Through Two
So now it is a best-of-five! Honours were shared equally through the first two games of the Gagarin Cup Final; SKA St. Petersburg and Metallurg Magnitogorsk have a victory apiece as the series moves back to the former’s home on the bank of the Okkervil River. Read on, for a recap of those fascinating first two games, and a very quick look at playoff developments in a couple of other leagues!
The Gagarin Cup Final got underway on Saturday, with SKA in Magnitogorsk to face defending champs Metallurg. SKA coach Oleg Znarok opted to go with the hot hand in goal, starting young Igor Shestorykin over the now-healthy Mikko Koskinen. Metallurg, meanwhile, stayed with veteran Vasily Koshechkin in net, but also welcomed back useful defenceman Alexei Bereglazov to the ranks of the hale and hearty. And off we went.
After a quiet opening few minutes, during which the two teams got re-adjusted to game conditions (they had not played since the end of March), things began to pick up. Koshechkin needed every inch of his 6’7″ to get a toenail on a redirection in front, but shortly thereafter SKA went ahead. Anton Belov’s fierce point shot was knocked down by Koshechkin, but Yevgeny Ketov was on hand to stuff home the loose puck. Shestyorkin, for his part, got a blocker on a gilt-edged chance for Metallurg’s Viktor Antipin, and the score was 1-0 for the visitors after 20 minutes.
In the second period, both teams kicked out the jams, and we saw what we had always expected from this series: goals, and lots of them. First it was Metallurg tying things up, as Yevgeny Timkin tipped home Yaroslav Kosov’s shot. Then the home side went ahead, as SKA’s Ilya Kovalchuk uncharacteristically muffed a clearing attempt from deep in his own end. The puck bobbled into the high slot, and who should be waiting happily to meet it but Mr. Sergei Mozyakin, he of the 54 goals on the season and the uncanny ability to predict the play. A heartbeat later, Mozyakin’s 2016-17 goal total was 55, and Metallurg had the 2-1 lead.
Things got rough. Metallurg’s Oskar Osala drove his shoulder into the head of Nikolai Prokhorkin, and the referee assessed it worthy of five minutes and a game misconduct. Metallurg killed the penalty, with the aid of Koshechkin (and of his crossbar, which foiled Nikita Gusev), but less than a minute after their return to full strength, they turned the puck over in the neutral zone, and Gusev astutely sprang Yevgeny Dadonov for a clear breakaway. The SKA forward roofed the puck glove side on Koshechkin, and the score was 2-2. Then, just 70 seconds after that, SKA took the lead; Prokhorkin earned some revenge for Osala’s hit by swiping home a rebound from close range to make it 3-2.
The fun was not yet over — nor, unfortunately, were the hits to the head. The next to earn the referee’s ire was Kovalchuk, who was not having a game that he will remember fondly. He hit Metallurg’s Jan Kovář up high, and duly received the same punishment that Osala had. Metallurg’s mighty powerplay (30.9% in the regular season and a ridiculous 38.6% in the playoffs) took advantage, as Mozyakin teed up the onrushing Antipin for a perfect one-timer that flew past Shestyorkin to level the score at three apiece heading to the final 20 minutes.
Compared to the second, the third period was a sedate affair, at least for its first 15 minutes. But when the crucial strike arrived, it was SKA’s. Defenceman Patrik Hersley was ready and waiting for Vadim Shipachyov’s pass out from behind the net; Hersley hit the shot with such venom that it tore through the goal-netting behind Koshechkin and continued merrily on its way. 4-3 for the St. Petersburg side, and they weren’t finished. Two minutes later, and with just 180 seconds left on the clock, Dadonov stole the puck, then put a breathtaking move on Metallurg’s Chris Lee at the home team’s blueline to get in alone once again on Koshechkin. Dadonov had gone high glove the first time; he went low stick on this occasion for his second goal of the game and a 5-3 lead for SKA.
Metallurg, of course, hurled everything forward in the little time that remained, and Shestyorkin had to be sharp to turn away Kovář in the last minute. The SKA goalie could nothing, however, to prevent Tomáš Filippi notching a fourth Metallurg goal from a mad scramble in front — but by that time there were only ten seconds left, not enough for an equalizer. 5-4 the final, and SKA with a vital road win to open the series.
The KHL’s Disciplinary Board decided that fines, rather than suspensions, were in order for Osala and Kovalchuk after their Game 1 ejections, so both were available for today’s Game 2. The Board also “awarded” post-facto major penalties plus game misconducts, and fines, to SKA’s Shipachyov and to Tommi Santala of Metallurg for slashing incidents in the first game. The goaltending assignments remained the same, and so it was on to Game 2, with Metallurg badly needing to get something at home before the series switches to St. Petersburg.
But SKA, too, knew that they could take a solid grip on the Gagarin Cup, and in the early stages of Game 2 they were in complete control. The opening 20 minutes saw SKA attempt 41 shots at the Metallurg goal, with the home team able to muster only eight the other way. Actual shots on goal were 17-2… but it’s the ones that go in that count, and the first of those came off a Metallurg stick. A nifty little one-two between Kovář and Lee, on the powerplay, ended with the former tipping the puck in to give his team an unlikely lead.
But despite heroics by Koshechkin in the Metallurg net, the score was quickly level. With Mozyakin having made one his ultra-rare trips to the penalty box (he has 10 PiM in the last two seasons, combined), and SKA hammering away on the powerplay, Shipachyov got free at the side of the net for the 1-1 goal. A few moments later, they got the puck past Koshechkin again, off a tremendous point shot by Anton Belov, but this time the giant goalie got just enough of it as it went past to turn it onto his post, and his team-mate Antipin arrived to sweep the puck to safety as it lay in the crease. Astonishingly, we arrived at the first intermission with the score tied at one.
And Metallurg righted the ship, at least somewhat, heading into the second period. Chances continued to come for SKA, but at least now the home side was answering with some of their own, most notably a Mozyakin one-timer that drew a fine save from Shestyorkin. Koshechkin, for his part, robbed Dadonov with SKA on the powerplay, and the score held at one apiece until late in the middle frame. Then Metallurg’s Timkin headed to the box for two minutes, but his penalty-killing team-mates came through for him. Osala rushed the puck from his own end, and his knuckleball of a shot seemed to wrong-foot Shestyorkin; the SKA goalie made the save, but could not prevent a juicy rebound for Vladislav Koletnik to tuck into the net for a shorthanded goal. After 40 minutes, the shots on goal were 28-10 for SKA, but Metallurg remarkably held a 2-1 lead.
As you might imagine, SKA came on full bore in the third, once again producing 40 shot attempts with 16 of those requiring Koshechkin’s intervention. But the big man was not to be beaten again. The only scoring of the third period came late on, when SKA had pulled Shestyorkin from their own net for the extra attacker; Metallurg’s Santala took advantage, scoring into the empty cage to make the final score 3-1, and the series is now level at a game apiece. SKA will be left wondering just how they managed to lose Game 2, while Metallurg can thank their lucky stars, their penalty-killers, and especially Vasily Koshechkin for the level terms upon which they find themselves.
And so now the action moves to St. Petersburg, with Game 3 scheduled for Wednesday. For drama and excitement, I must say that we have already gotten our money’s worth from this one. Metallurg must figure out a way to avoid disasters such as Game 2’s first period; they will not always be able to escape unscathed as they did today. As for SKA, they must keep up the pressure that they were able to exert in Game 2, while not forgetting that their opponents have some lethal players of their own.
We will finish up here with a couple of playoff, and indeed championship finals notes, from other Russian leagues. The VHL, Russia’s second-tier professional circuit, is down to two teams who will vie for possession of the Bratina Cup. Regular-season champions Torpedo Ust-Kamenogorsk have made it through, having defeated Rubin Tyumen in six games in the semi-final. Torpedo’s opposition in the Final will be provided by Dynamo Balashikha, who were ranked sixth during the regular season. Dynamo will at least be well-rested, having swept their semi-final series against Zauralye Kurgan. Game 1 of the Bratina Cup Final goes on April 13th.
And in the MHL, the top Russian junior league, the Kharlamov Cup finalists have also been determined. Krasnaya Armiya Moscow, youth squad of the KHL’s CSKA, won their best-of-five semifinal in three straight over Kuznetskie Medvedi of Novokuznetsk. Their opposition in the final will come from Reaktor Nizhnekamsk (Neftekhimik’s junior team), who saw off Almaz Cherepovets in a four-game semifinal that ended today. The Final begins April 17th.
Thank you for reading!