It is done, and in the end, there was no doubt at all who the better team was. As mentioned in a brief post here earlier, SKA St. Petersburg are the 2016-17 Gagarin Cup champions, having defeated Metallurg Magnitogorsk in five games. Read on, for a recap of the decisive match (highlights above) and some thoughts about the series as a whole.
Metallurg, coming into today’s game, could look back at three straight heinous first period performances, with a net shot total of 55-10 against; at least, in Game 5, they managed to keep things a bit closer, as shots through 20 minutes would favour SKA by only 17-10. And the Magnitogorsk team, in front of a frenzied home crowd, nearly took the lead early on when Sergei Mozyakin’s deft tip found the outside of the goalpost five minutes in. Not long after that, they did take the lead for real, and it was Oskar Osala doing the honours. As he had when he scored in Game 4, the Finnish forward came barreling up the left wing, but this time his shot beat SKA goalie Mikko Koskinen far side, rather than near.
At the other end, Metallurg netminder Vasily Koshechkin continued his fine play, snapping Alexander Khokhlachyov’s goal-bound shot out of the air to preserve his team’s lead. Koshechkin’s team-mates were duly grateful, and thanked him by doubling the advantage early in the second period. Viktor Antipin’s shot from distance should have been routine for Koskinen, but it took a treacherous deflection off of SKA defenceman Yegor Rykov and sailed over the Finnish netminder’s shoulder. 2-0 for Metallurg, and the likelihood of a Game 6 ratcheted up a notch.
But oh, this was a good SKA team, and they were back within a goal just a couple of minutes later. The Metallurg defence, killing a penalty, were caught puck-watching as Yevgeny Dadonov centred to a wide-open Nikita Gusev. Gusev had been Mr. Assist coming in, with seven helpers in the first four games of the Final, but this one he fired home himself with clinical precision to make the score 2-1. That goal was joined very shortly by SKA’s equalizer. Alexander Barabanov did well to work himself some space in front of the Metallurg net, and was rewarded when Ilya Kovalchuk’s centering pass found his stick for the 2-2 goal.
Metallurg didn’t collapse, to their credit, and Koskinen had to be sharp to get an arm on a hard shot by Tomáš Filippi. But SKA had the bit between their teeth now, and nobody could have been too surprised when they took the lead with five minutes left in the middle frame. Gusev’s well-weighted clearing effort sprang his line-mates, Dadonov and Vadim Shipachyov, on a two-on-one. The latter chose the perfect moment to pass across to the former, and Dadonov’s quick wrist-shot flew by Koshechkin to put SKA ahead 3-2 after 40 minutes of play.
From 2-0 up to 3-2 down, and so Metallurg had but 20 minutes left to save their season. That mission could not have gotten off to a worse start for the defending champions. Right off the opening faceoff of the third period, Patrik Hersley intercepted an errant pass, skated into the Metallurg zone, and fed Ilya Kovalchuk in good position. Kovi may not be what he once was, but he still can demonstrate a sniper’s eye for goal; his shot beat Koshechkin and nestled just inside the spot where the post meets the crossbar, and now SKA’s lead was two.
Metallurg response, however, was swift. Within a minute, Yaroslav Kosov picked a pocket in the neutral zone, skated in on Koskinen, and reduced the arrears to one; the goal was very reminiscent of Osala’s opener. Oddly enough, at this point the game settled a bit, with neither team able to carve out much in the way of five-bell chances for a long time.
But as Metallurg’s desperation mounted, so did their pressure on the SKA goal, and with two minutes left on the clock Danis Zaripov carved his through the St. Petersburg defence only to be foiled by Koskinen. Then the Finnish goalie was called upon for two spectacular saves in quick succession off a horrendous scramble in front of him; he made both to preserve SKA’s lead.
Koshechkin, meanwhile, was on the bench to allow Metallurg the extra attacker, and so it was that SKA applied the coup de grâce. A miscommunication between Mozyakin and a team-mate at the SKA line allowed the puck to skitter down the ice, pursued by SKA’s Sergei Plotnikov. The game was clearly up at that point; Plotnikov recovered the puck and basically skated it into the Metallurg net with nary an opposing sweater in sight. The celebration began on the SKA bench, and it took to the ice just a few seconds later. 5-3 was the final score — handshakes, handing out of medals and trophies, and the spraying of champagne around the SKA dressing room were all soon to follow.
It appeared scant consolation to him, understandably enough, but Koshechkin was named playoff MVP for this season. He is an eminently defensible winner of the award; his post-season save percentage of .940 was best among goalies who played more than three games. And Koshechkin’s work during the Final was breathtaking, if all in vain at the end. Metallurg took an awful pounding in Games 2, 3, and 4, but they won the first of those and stayed in the other two right to the very end, and it was basically all thanks to their netminder. He’ll be back to try again next year as well; Metallurg have extended his contract for two more years.
Koshechkin’s SKA colleague, Mikko Koskinen, wrote a nice story in these playoffs too. A poor regular season saw him bumped from the first-choice starter’s spot by youngster Igor Shestyorkin, who had a spectacular breakout campaign. But coach Oleg Znarok opted for his veteran when the playoffs began, and the decision turned out to be a good one. Koskinen’s .938sv% was just a hair behind that of MVP Koshechkin.
One of the big reasons for SKA’s success in the Final was their shutting down of Metallurg’s “big four.” Coming in, Sergei Mozyakin, Danis Zaripov, Jan Kovář, and defenceman Chris Lee had combined for 84 points in 13 post-season games. In the five games of the Final, they were held to just two goals and eight points. Nobody had a more miserable time of it than Zaripov, who had scored a remarkable 15 goals in Metallurg’s first three series. In the Final, not only was he held without a point of any kind, but he was sitting in the penalty box on two important occasions: SKA’s winning goal in Game 4, and the goal in Game 5 that began their second-period comeback (the first of those penalties, it must be said, was patently unjust).
SKA’s big line of Nikita Gusev, Yevgeny Dadonov, and Vadim Shipachyov, on the other hand, had a fine Final, combining for 20 points. Gusev led the way, recording at least a point in every game (five over the last two matches) and finishing up with one goal and eight assists. I believe that, had the decision been mine, he would have taken home the MVP award, although as I said above I have no issue whatsoever with it going to Koshechkin. Gusev, still just 24 years old, has another year on his contract at SKA; it will be interesting to see if the Tampa Bay Lightning, who drafted him in 2012 and I believe still hold his NHL rights, make an effort to lure him to the NHL in 2018.
Hats off to SKA coach Oleg Znarok, who now owns three Gagarin Cup rings (he previously won twice behind the bench of Dynamo Moscow, in 2012 and 2013) after his first season in charge in St. Petersburg. Yes, SKA are the KHL’s financial juggernaut, and can sign free agents more-or-less at will. And yes, as a result of that they have a lineup that is deeper than deep, and have been odds-on favourites for the Gagarin Cup all season. But all that is no guarantee of success; you can find any number of moneybags teams that have ended up flopping miserably on the ice, or field, or diamond, or wherever (among those sad examples would be last year’s edition of SKA St. Petersburg). Coaching does matter, even with a stacked lineup.
And Znarok deserves a heaping helping of credit for the team’s playoff success this year. He made the right choice of goalie, mildly controversial though it seemed at the time. And we should not forget that SKA went 16-2 in these playoffs despite being without defenceman Vyacheslav Voinov (third-most points among KHL rearguards in the regular season) for the entire post-season, and without Pavel Datsyuk for the last two series and a bit. A potent roster, yes, but Znarok got the most out of them.
And, as a final note on the 2016-17 Gagarin Cup: Ilya Kovalchuk. A little over a year ago, he was getting off a train in St. Petersburg alone in the middle of the night, having been stripped of the SKA captaincy and banned from even practicing with the team. That happened during the team’s first-round playoff series against Lokomotiv, and Kovalchuk wouldn’t step on the ice again in 2015-16. It has never been fully revealed what caused the rift, nor what patched it up (my guess as to the latter: the arrivals of Oleg Znarok and Pavel Datsyuk), but patched up it has been. Today Ilya Kovalchuk scored the Gagarin Cup-winning goal… as captain of SKA St. Petersburg (ok, he was only interim captain, in Datsyuk’s absence, but still). We might note that Kovalchuk did not have a strong post-season, and this is true (just nine points in 18 games, after 78 in 60 in the regular season), but his 2016-17 season is a wonderful story with a wonderful ending nonetheless. And it seemed, from his obvious joy in the dressing room after the presentation of the Cup, the man himself was well aware of that fact!
In closing, we turn our attention away from the KHL for a moment, because SKA were not the only Russian hockey champions crowned today. In Rostov-na-Donu, in Russia’s deep southwest near the Ukrainian border, home team HK Rostov defeated Slavutich Smolensk 3-2 to win the Federations Cup — the championship of Russia’s third-tier men’s professional league, the Pervenstvo VHL. HK Rostov were founded in 2004, but only turned joined the professional ranks in 2013; they have been tremendously successful, and this is their second title in three years.
Congratulations once again to SKA St. Petersburg (and to HK Rostok)! Thank you for reading, and a Happy Easter to all!