Nearly There for SKA
SKA St. Petersburg find themselves just one win away from their second Gagarin Cup triumph, and their second in three years to boot! How has their 3-1 series lead come to pass? Read on, for recaps of the last two games, some MVP speculation, and an odd developing story that just cropped up today.
When last we checked in with the Gagarin Cup Final, the two teams were tied heading to St. Petersburg for Games 3 and 4. After the 3-1 loss in Game 2, SKA coach Oleg Znarok switched goalies, returning to veteran Mikko Koskinen over the youngster Igor Shestyorkin for the third tilt. Metallurg’s big task, meanwhile, was to avoid the first-period meltdown that had seen them outshot 17-2 in the opening 20 minutes of Game 2. This, they did not manage; shots in the first period of Game 3 favoured SKA by 18-3. But, just as in that second game, the St. Petersburg side ran into a brick wall in Metallurg goalie Vasily Koshechkin; the giant netminder’s best of several blue-chip saves was a left-pad robbery of Yevgeny Dadonov during an SKA powerplay. Koshechkin also enjoyed some goalie’s luck, as he saw Anton Belov ring a fierce shot of the post. Despite the disparity in shots, the score was 0-0 as we headed to the middle period.
There, SKA finally got the reward their pressure had earned them. We have already seen a bizarre number of goals scored from centre-ice in these playoffs — three, to be precise — and even more weirdly, all had come off the stick of Dynamo Moscow’s Andrei Kuteikin. Now, however, it was the turn of SKA defenceman Andrei Zubarev, as his blast from the red line found a whole just above the pad and beneath the glove of Koshechkin. A rare lapse from the Metallurg netminder in this series, but it made the score 1-0, and nobody could have begrudged SKA their lead at that point.
Metallurg, however, are not in this final by accident. Zubarev’s goal seemed to fire up the defending champions, and replied with some pressure of their own on the home team’s net. Now it was Koskinen’s turn to be both good and lucky; Vladislav Koletnik found the iron in behind the Finnish goalie, before Jan Kovář sprang the inimitable Sergei Mozyakin on a breakaway only to see him shoot wide. A Metallurg powerplay called out a trio of fine saves from Koskinen in the face of just a few seconds, but the equalizer did arrive eventually. In the dying seconds of the second period, a last Metallurg rush got the puck to Chris Lee in the SKA zone. Skating backwards at full speed, Lee fired a splendid pass across the goalmouth, and it was duly converted by Denis Kazionov. Two goals from unlikely sources (they were the first of these playoffs for both Zubarev and Kuteikin), and the score stood at 1-1 after 40 minutes.
It still stood there after 60. SKA’s Alexander Barabanov had a gilt-edged chance to win it late for SKA, as he was set up all alone with time in front of Koshechkin. But he deked instead of shooting, Koshechkin closed him down, and the puck ended up wide of the goal. And so we went off to overtime, the first such occasion in the 2017 Final. Although the teams traded good chances in the first 20 minutes of extra time, both Koshechkin and Koskinen kept the game going.
Koshechkin was the busier of the two, and he passed the 50-save mark for the night early in the second overtime. But, the Metallurg netminder would not get the ending he wanted and deserved for his work. In the 93rd minute of the game, by that time the longest in Gagarin Cup Finals history, a rush by SKA saw the puck end up on the stick of young Nikita Gusev right in front of the Metallurg net. The defencemen reacted quickly to close down the shot, so Gusev, eschewing that option, sent a short pass to a wide-open Dadonov. His one-time was unstoppable, and brought the night’s proceedings to a close with a 2-1 game and series score in SKA’s favour. It was, as noted, rough justice for Koshechkin, who made 56 saves on the night (Koskinen made 27).
And so Game 4 was, if not a must-win, at least a “really-should-win” game for Metallurg, and they got a dream start. On the very first shift, a lackadaisical clear by the SKA defence ended up with the puck on the stick of a pinching Viktor Antipin. He snapped his shot under Koskinen’s arm, and the Magnitogorsk team was up 1-0 with just 27 seconds gone (that too a record for the Final). Then, however, the now-customary SKA first-period onslaught commenced; this time, the shots through 20 minutes would favour the St. Petersburg side by 23-7 (that makes a three-game total of 55-10 in the first period). Vasily Koshechkin is going to be a tired, tired, goalie by the time this is all over, but he was once again valiant in Game 4, most notably on a point-blank save against Alexander Barabanov on a fine set-up from Jarno Koskiranta. Remarkably, the 1-0 Metallurg lead was still intact when the first intermission arrived.
But it did not last long into the second period. Vadim Shipachyov was almost literally skating circles around the Metallurg defence, and two minutes into the middle frame he assayed a speculative from out near the blueline. Koshechkin stopped it, but could only push the rebound into the middle of the slot, where Dinar Khafizullin was on hand to bat it home and level the score at one goal apiece. It was just the second of the playoffs for Khafizullin, who is known more for his role as a defensive defenceman at SKA than for his scoring (I mention that for a reason, which will become clear anon).
Just like in Game 3, however, Metallurg responded to the goal against by stepping up their play. Koskinen suddenly found himself busy in the SKA net, and he made a spectacular save on a Yaroslav Kosov one-timer to keep things at 1-1. But the resilient Metallurgists did retake their lead, with six minutes to go in the middle frame. The puck was scuffled up out of the Magnitogorsk end to centre, where it found Finnish forward Oskar Osala. Nothing complicated about this goal; Osala found some room, bore down on his countryman Koskinen, and whipped the puck into the SKA net. 2-1 for Metallurg, and so matters stood at the end of two periods, although Koshechkin was once again assailed during a frantic final minute of the frame. The third period, obviously, would represent a key phase of the entire series.
Any hopes Metallurg had of clinging to that one-goal advantage were snuffed quickly. In the second minute of the third period, Zubarev, scorer of SKA’s long-range goal in Game 3, knocked Metallurg’s Kosov head-over-heels with a clean hip-check in the SKA zone. Zubarev then made his way up-ice and arrived in Metallurg’s end in time to step into a long slapshot of a loose puck; he mis-hit the attempt badly, his stick shattering in the process, but the fluttering knuckleball of a shot that resulted seemed to fool Koshechkin, and the game was tied. Almost immediately, Metallurg nearly re-took the lead, as Tomáš Filippi’s clever spin-o-rama pass to Alexander Syomin somehow resulted in a shot wide from point-blank range. We passed the middle of the period with the teams still locked at two apiece.
Then — some controversy. Danis Zaripov, who has been horribly snake-bitten in this series (no points at all in the Final, after coming in averaging better than a goal per game in the playoffs), was the victim of a genuinely weak penalty call on what was basically a mild collision. Off he went to the box, and those who can lip-read Russian saw clearly that the words he said once he took his seat were unkind. SKA took advantage of the powerplay, too. Patrik Hersley got the puck nicely teed up at the point, and hammered his hard shot directly off the mask of Koshechkin. The puck dropped in front of the semi-stunned Metallurg netminder, and there on hand to whack it home was the unlikely scoring hero Khafizullin. His two goals on the night give him 22 in his entire KHL career, going back to 2009-10 and comprising 377 games. Metallurg would protest the goal, claiming that play should have stopped when Koshechkin was hit in the mask, but by the letter of the law they had no case (an immediate scoring chance after a goalie is so struck is allowed, with thanks to @AlliSib for tracking that down), and the goal was correctly given.
It would be the winner, too, as the game finished up without further scoring; 3-2 the final, and a 3-1 series lead means that SKA have one hand on the Gagarin Cup. They can wrap it up on Sunday with a win in Magnitogorsk. Metallurg must figure out a way to avoid the horrendous first-period poundings they have been taking on the shot-clock (they have generally survived them, but how long can that last?), and if they could get Mr. Zaripov going again, that wouldn’t hurt either. As for SKA, keep doing what they have been doing, especially the work the defencemen have done in keeping Metallurg’s big line more-or-less under control.
We can also at this point start to think about potential playoff MVPs. Should Metallurg come back and win the Gagarin Cup, the only reasonable choice at this point would seem to be Koshechkin, and he may be a candidate even if they just stretch the series to six or seven games. Over Games 2, 3, and 4 of the Final, he faced 154 shots and stopped 148 of them for a .961 sv%, and his .943 sv% overall in this post-season is the best among goalies who have played more than three games.
SKA’s best, on the other hand, has probably been Gusev, particularly in the Final. The 24-year-old has recorded seven assists, including creating the all-important overtime goal in Game 3 and recording a helper on all three SKA goals in Game 4. And seven assists is even more impressive given that SKA have scored a total of 11 goals in the series. Gusev’s total line for the playoffs is 17 gp, 6-15-21, which puts him fourth in the KHL in post-season points in 2016-17.
We also may have a bit of a developing story off the ice. Journalist Igor Eronko reported today that Metallurg officials found a listening device in their coaches’ room at the arena in St. Petersburg. Aivis Kalniņš further reports that the KHL is looking into the matter, and that SKA may be fined. We will keep an eye on it, and see what happens.
Thank you for reading!