Ak Bars (which, by the way, means 'White Leopard' in Tatar) have defeated HC MVD 3-2 in Game 1 of the Gagarin Cup final, although all the Kazan players admitted they had to keep their concentration for every second to secure the victory.
Before the match only the assistant coaches were available to talk with the press. Harijs Vitolins optimistically summed up the mood in the home camp:
“All the guys fully understand the importance of these games; we are starting from nothing and we want to finish as winners.”
The Moscow Region outfit has demonstrated to all that they are capable of beating any opponent, and Ak Bars could not afford to take them lightly. The Militia men are not satisfied with having earned Russian Open Championships silver medals at least. They are hungry for more.
Oleg Znarok made the minimum of changes to his line-up, replacing only Andrei Skopintsev and giving a game to Roman Derlyuk, who has not fully recovered after broken toe. In the Gagarin Cup, it seems, you have no time for pain.
Ak Bars made no changes at all to the team. Young forward Kirill Petrov, recently added to the first team, did appear during the warm-up but took no part in the game.
The opening 20 minutes resembled a final only in the tension which reigned supreme around the arena. The Kazan men were obviously expecting the unexpected from the hosts, who could not believe the easy time they were having against the champions, and the period’s only two chances which bordered on being dangerous were created by the home team.
“We simply stood and watched the opposition, so we wasted the period on reconnaissance instead of doing battle,” was how Ak Bars captain Alexei Morozov explained his team’s muted start. “Of course, the second period turned out to be a thriller. We’re happy that we fought back after twice going behind.”
Three of the four goals scored in the second period can best be described as bizarre, and strangest of all was the one claimed by Alexei Yemelin. Only he knows the destination of his intended pass, it was probably a teammate, but an unfortunate deflection off a defenseman’s skate deceived Michael Garnett, and he could not react in time to prevent a goal.
A few minutes into the third period Dmitry Obukhov (pictured) finally put the visitors ahead, and despite all their efforts, including sending on a sixth skater in place of the goaltender, there were to be no more scoring chances for HC MVD.
The setback has not dampened the spirits of the coaching staff:
“The defeat will not send us into any kind of panic,” Oleg Znarok brushed aside any suspicions about his side’s morale. “Maybe the rumors of a possible merger with Dynamo had an effect on us in the run-up to the match, but we all agreed we’d stick together.”
Zinetula Bilyaletdinov gave due credit to his opponents:
“Today we saw two class teams in action,” said the coach. “There were a lot of battles and few penalties. This is only the beginning.”
HC MVD attacker Alexei Tsvetkov felt his team had been unlucky at times:
“There were several episodes where we had possession and could have made better use of the puck, but this is Ak Bars we’re up against. Things didn’t go our way, and they punished us for nearly every single mistake in defense.”
Many were wondering whether Ak Bars were as motivated against HC MVD as much as they would have been against Lokomotiv, whom they faced in last year’s final and who were close to being this year’s opponent.
“What are you talking about?” said a surprised Alexei Badyukov. “We need no special reasons to motivate us, it’s just the opposite. We prepared very thoroughly for this game and studied every part of the opposition’s play. Otherwise, if we were complacent in any way, they would have punished us. To take it easy in a final is unforgivable.”