Friday was far from being the season’s most sumptuous feast of hockey: only two matches were played, but both aroused special interest.
In Ufa the championship leaders Salavat Yulaev welcomed Avangard Omsk, with whom they have had memorable duels last season, when Salavat won the regular championship but were then surprisingly knocked out in the very first round by Avangard, who have booked the last 16th play-offs sport on the last day.
And in Kazan we had Gagarin Cup holders Ak Bars, who have made a very inconsistent start to the season, mixing sparkling victories with dull defeats, and earning a modest mid-table position in the Eastern Conference - too modest, for such a grand and ambitious club. Their opponents, Lada Togliatti, are going through very tough times: the club has huge financial problems, and are only keeping their heads above water thanks to material assistance from the KHL. However, this is not enough to prevent an exodus of leading players, hence the recent departure to Metallurg Magnitogorsk of goaltender Vasily Koshechkin, a frequent saviour who earned the side a lot of their points. It was typical of their time of troubles that they travelled to Kazan without head coach Petr Vorobyev, who was hospitalised on the eve of the match with heart problems.
The Ufa fans left happy, having seen ten goals in the match, with the teams scoring in turn. In the the first period the host were in powerplay three times and collected three goals, from Andrei Taratukhin, Alexei Medvedev, and Andrei Sidyakin. The guests replied with an outstanding solo run from Anton Kuryanov and then a goal by Evgeny Orlov.
In the second period Jakub Klepis equalized, and in the third Avanguard went 4-3 up with a shot from Igor Volkov. Vitaly Proshkin and Patrick Thoresen gave the advantage back to Salavat, but there was still time for Lasse Kukkonen to level and take the match into overtime.
For Salavat this was their second consecutive overtime (having beaten Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg 4-3 on Monday), and Avangard’s seventh in eight matches. While the Omsk men have the most experience of overtime games, they have not made use of it, their previous five such matches ending in defeat. And today they lost the sixth, with Sergei Zinovyev’s powerplay goal bringing Salavat their 11th straight victory.
"It was great hockey for the public," said Salavat head coach Vyacheslav Bykov. "In terms of quality play, it could have been better, but on the other hand this is a show. The main thing is that we came through with positive emotions."
"It turned out to be a very enjoyable game," - maintained Avangard’s head coach Igor Nikitin. "Games like this are great for the spectators, but not for us coaches. Such a match certainly gives me plenty of food for thought, but that makes things more interesting."
After this victory, Salavat Yulaev are the league’s leading point-scorers, with 59, despite having played one match less than Western conference leaders SKA, who have 58.
No chance for Lada
In Kazan, Ak Bars did not face the stiffest resistance from Lada. The hosts’ coach, Zinetula Bilyaletdinov, with centre Alexei Tereshchenko injured, had to change his first striking trio, adding Niko Kapanen to Alexei Morozov and Danis Zaripov. And the new-look front line performed wonderfully, with Zaripov (pictured) scoring the first two goals and Kapanen adding the third.
After the match, Zaripov admitted, "Lada didn’t compete very strongly, I didn’t see any spark in their eyes. Although this is perfectly understandable. I don’t know what I’d do in such a situation when you have such problems with the finances."
After the fourth goal, scored exactly halfway through the second period by Dmitry Obukhov, Lada exchanged goaltender Alexei Semenov with Alexei Anisimov, and Ak Bars stopped scoring. The guests even managed to get themselves a goal, with Marat Kalimulin scoring seven minutes from the end. But this was not due to a change in the balance of play, but more because Ak Bars decided to conserve energy and take their foot off the gas in the third period. Maybe Bilyaletdinov did not want to give too much of a hammering to his former Dynamo Moscow teammate Sergei Svetlov, in charge of Lada during the absence due to illness of Petr Vorobyev.
"Ak Bars played with more strength and confidence," said Svetlov after the game, "we couldn’t hold off their front line, couldn't create many openings, and those we did create came to nothing, and that’s the bottom line. We were second best in one-on-ones, in goal-play, and in concentration."