(8) Dinamo Minsk 5
(1) Lokomotiv Yaroslavl 3

Series tied 3-3
Before the play-offs got under way few would have predicted that this pairing would be the sole series in the West to go down to the Game 7. It’s reasonable to assume that behind this unexpected turn of events is not merely the heroic performance of the dark horses from Belarus, but more the lack of confidence displayed by the favorites.

However, Lokomotiv’s Czech coach Vladimír Vůjtek looked at the situation philosophically: “The task in the play-offs is not to win by some specific score, but simply to edge ever closer to your goal series by series.”

As for the game itself, Vůjtek gave this view: “The fans saw good hockey, not the kind of tight play we had in the last game in Yaroslavl, but quite the opposite: very lively. Unfortunately for me, the Minsk guys wanted the win more than our guys did. So I congratulate Marek on a deserved victory.”

Marek Sykora, who had every reason to be pleased with the evening, agreed with his opposite number: “The fans certainly were witnesses to some great hockey, especially from our side; probably one of our best games of the entire season. This game had everything: shooting, battling, scoring, and fighting. Overall, a great evening of hockey. The third period was tougher for us than the first two, since we switched to playing with three lines. Yes, it’s a risk, but we wanted to win. Although I really did worry when the third goal went into our net. We were nowhere in the neutral zone, but in the end we managed to hit back with a classy move, and also one of the most beautiful.”

Another strategic move taken by the Minsk head coach was rotating the players in the first and fourth lines. In place of Petr Sykora he brought Alexander Kulakov into the first trio with Jozef Stumpel and Konstantin Glazachev. When asked if this was down to some special plan, Marek Sykora replied: “I’ve been following Petr’s game closely: as a foreign import (and a fellow Czech) he is under specific pressure. It was obvious he wasn’t on top of his game, so I had to take a gamble. But the gamble paid off.”

Kulakov himself explained that for him the move to the first line was nothing special: “Moving to the first line means I play in the first line; and if I stay in the fourth, I play in the fourth. It’s the team that wins, not specific players. And I’ve already played a couple of times alongside Konstantin Glazachev. Today things went well, with us getting two goals.”

And so, the fate of these two teams is to be decided this Saturday in Yaroslavl. The old adage about the final step being the hardest has already become commonplace. As to questions about for whom it will be tougher and why, Marek Sykora answered: “Lokomotiv, I hope. Those guys are the favorites, and they’ll be on their own ice. That’s a lot of responsibility and a big psychological burden.”

(7) Dinamo Riga 2 OT
(2) Dynamo Moscow 1
Dinamo Riga win the series 4-2
Dinamo Riga clinched victory in the series, an outcome which a glance at the two teams’ standings in the regular championship could certainly lead you to count it as a surprise. But any surprise disappears if we examine the results of the regular championship games between the two protagonists, in which the Latvians have clearly held the upper hand.

After the fifth game in this series the Latvians’ head coach Julius Supler lamented the absence of three key players. Two of these recovered in time for this evening’s contest, much to the delight of Janis Sprukts: “We had the return of Mark Hartigan and Alexanders Nizivijs, who we really missed in Moscow. But notice that it wasn’t just this pair who played well, but the whole team, even the fourth line. The guys didn’t have much time on the ice, but once they got out onto it they looked amazing.”

Nizivijs, who sat out the previous game with a knee injury, skillfully evaded questions about his fitness: “Yes, everything’s fine with my leg, you don’t need to pay any more attention to that. But the game today was a real tough one, with both teams playing highly-disciplined hockey. The Muscovites had the initiative in the first period, earned a power play and made it count. But everything turned out well for us in the end. And this is the 11th time these teams have met this season, which is more than enough.”

Sprukts preferred not to even think about the identity of Riga’s next opponents: “We have no preferences at all, apart from wanting to win the Gagarin Cup. Otherwise, what is any team doing in the play-offs? We are not burdening ourselves by saying we have to win the big prize, but we mustn’t forget about it. We are just going to play each game as it comes, and do everything possible to get victory after victory.”

(5) Severstal Cherepovets 0
(4) Atlant Mytishchi 1
Atlant win the series 4-2
As Severstal’s season approached its end there was a strong impression that what hurts the Cherepovets men the most is not the early exit from the play-offs as much as the team’s increasingly toothless offense. While in the Game 2 of the series they grabbed five goals, they followed this with a total of just four in the next four encounters. As head coach Dmitry Kvartalnov admitted: “No goals – what can I say? In recent games our poor finishing has been a catastrophe, and that’s the reason for the series defeat. Atlant’s defense also played its part, plus our difficulties, plus strange unnecessary penalties. I thank the guys for giving their all. Now I can say that we had four guys playing hockey only after injections, and in the regular season I wouldn’t have sent them onto the ice in their condition.”

Severstal captain Sergei Soin was left to grieve over wasted opportunities: “The fate of the series was sealed by one goal, scored in power play. We hardly ever turned our numerical advantage into goals. In the really close-fought battles such minor details, like scoring in power play, can be fatal. The series was one of the tightest of all the first round pairings. We were broken a little by the heavy defeat in Cherepovets, but in all the remaining games we were fighting toe-to-toe.”

His fellow forward Alexei Tsvetkov was in full agreement: “We inconsolable, it is gutting to have your season end in early March. All the more so because we weren’t outclassed by our opponents, but at times they were better. But, sadly, we couldn’t make use of the chances that came our way.”

Atlant head coach Milos Riha, while happy with the victory, nonetheless remarked on his team’s shortcomings: “The last step is the toughest of all, and I’m happy we managed it. We set up the team to play it really tight in defense. We attacked the opposition and waited for their mistakes. But there were moments when nerves got the better of us. At times, we looked mediocre at best in the neutral zone.”

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