To add a bit of extra spice, Bilyaletdinov’s grip on the trophy was finally loosened in season three by Salavat Yulaev … coached by his opponent in the upcoming series, Vyacheslav Bykov.
There’s also a second shot at glory for Justin Azevedo, the Canadian-Portuguese forward who blazed Lev to last season’s final and scored in all seven games of that thrilling clash with Metallurg Magnitogorsk. Those heroics weren’t enough to lift the cup, but will he land the big prize this time?
Admittedly the opening phase might have been a bit different: the early games against Avtomobilist were a struggle, with the underdog twice taking it to overtime before winning Game 3 in Yekaterinburg. Every game in the series was decided by a single goal, but Ak Bars’ greater post-season experience saw it through.
The Conference semi-final brought a match-up with Avangard. At first it seemed like another close series between these old foes was in prospect as the Siberians edged the opening game 4-3 in overtime. But Ak Bars slammed down the defensive shutters, blanking the opposition 4-0 and 2-0. Avangard finally hit the target again deep into period 3, Game 4, scoring on Anders Nilsson for the first time in 178 minutes, but the game was gone. Another shut-out on home ice sent Ak Bars through.
Sibir was the next opponent in an intriguing clash of experience and youthful optimism. The Novosibirsk team came to Kazan on the back of the best season in its history – and promptly ran into that defensive wall. Shut out in game one, limited to a single 52nd-minute strike in game two, and only able to raise hopes briefly with a win in game three before two further shut-outs saw Ak Bars end the series with back-to-back 1-0 overtime victories.
On offense, it’s all been about Oscar Moller. The Swede didn’t have a dazzling regular season, delivering 14 goals in 52 games, but he’s caught fire in post-season to score 8 times. Incredibly six of them have been game-winners, three in overtime, making him the most decisive finisher in the competition. It’s a run of form reminiscent of Justin Azevedo’s feats with Lev Prague in last season’s play-off – and Azevedo is playing on the same line as Moller as he prepares for his second consecutive grand final.
“We will stick to our guns. I can warn you right now, Kazan will play its traditional cagey hockey” – defenseman Evgeny Medvedev has no worries about being accused of boring people.
“SKA did something amazing. It was just crazy. I’ve been there myself, in junior hockey, and I know how when you win in Game 7 after losing 3-0 you feel a whole bunch of emotions. It’s gonna be real tough for us in the final” – forward Justin Azevedo reflects on SKA’s fight back to reach the Gagarin Cup final.