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SKA storms to Gagarin Cup glory

19 April 2015, 20:18

Ak Bars 1
SKA 6

SKA wins the Gagarin Cup, taking the final series 4-1

The long, long wait is over at last. After 69 years of hockey in Leningrad and St. Petersburg, Russia’s second city can finally claim to be number 1. A devastating first-period performance in Kazan decided the course of game five – and the final series – inside 15 minutes as SKA raced into a 4-0 lead, clinically dismembering the prospects of the most dangerous of the provincial pretenders to Russian hockey’s top honors.

For a team that had never before managed to win a major domestic title – two bronzes in the Soviet championship and two Soviet Cup runner-up medals were as good as it got – lifting the Gagarin Cup for the first time was only the start of a memorable sequence of triumphs. Hot shot Evgeny Dadonov scored his 15th post-season goal, setting a new KHL record as he made it 3-0 in the 11th minute. His line-mate Vadim Shipachyov became the leading point-scorer in this year’s play-off, overtaking Alexander Radulov at the last opportunity with his contribution to second goal and finishing with 22 (6+16).

Behind the bench head coach Vyacheslav Bykov concluded his return to the league by repeating his 2011 triumph and matching the 4-1 series margin he achieved with Salavat Yulaev against Atlant. No other coach has won a grand final series in five games. Bykov joins today’s opponent Zinteula Bilyaletdinov and current Team Russia supremo Oleg Znarok on two trophy wins but becomes the first man to lift the big prize with two different teams.

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Trailing 3-1 from the first four games, Kazan promised a battle to the last as the action returned to the capital of Tatarstan with the home team on the brink of losing the series. For 73 seconds, that promise was fulfilled: Ak Bars began on the front foot, swarming around Mikko Koskinen’s net with uncharacteristic offensive vigor after a post-season spent almost exclusively on cautious hockey designed to stifle and smother opponents. But the first misplaced pass saw the puck clear the visitor’s zone and Jimmie Ericsson was quick enough to get there first ahead of Stepan Zakharchuk. A one timer from the left whipped past the startled Anders Nilsson to open the scoring on 1:13.

A similar defensive failure ultimately cost the host a second goal. Kirill Koltsov was close to turning Alexander Svitov’s pass into SKA’s net, but as the puck was cleared Vadim Shipachyov enjoyed a huge gap only to be denied by Yakob Rylov’s desperate hook. The goal was merely delayed: Ilya Kovalchuk fired home from the top of the circle off a Shipachyov pass out of the corner. 

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Then came Dadonov, stripping Vladimir Denisov of the puck on the blue line and streaking through to outwit Nilsson and take Mikhail Anisin’s goalscoring record. SKA still wasn’t finished: Ak Bars again coughed up the puck, this time in center ice, and Pyotr Khokhryakov advanced to drop the disk on to Alexei Ponikarovsky’s stick for 4-0.

After that disastrous opening stanza Ak Bars needed to strike early in the second – and Mikhail Glukhov delivered that goal his team had to have. Evgeny Medvedev’s picked out his team-mate darting in from the left flank and Glukhov slid a shot on the back hand through a crowded slot to give the home crowd some hope at last. But the cheers were abruptly silenced 40 seconds later as SKA reinstated its four-goal cushion. Patrick Thoresen set Kovalchuk away on the left and the man with all the big-game experience found himself unimpeded by opponents as he picked his moment to launch a wrist shot across the face of Nilsson and into the far corner from the face-off spot. 

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That was the goalie’s last significant action: he was pulled moments later for Emil Garipov’s first appearance of the final series. Garipov was immediately saved by the post as Kovi went close to a hat-trick but saw out the rest of the second period without conceding.

The third period, perhaps inevitably, was something of an anti-climax. The outcome was not in serious doubt and SKA was content to do a thoroughly professional job of holding Ak Bars at arm’s length until it could get its party started in earnest on the hooter. The home team, still roared on by its fans despite the fact that even the most optimistic could hardly have dared dream of a reprieve, struggled to create chances to narrow the gap while SKA’s jubilant traveling support stripped to the waist in the closing stages as the celebrations got underway in the stands. Roman Cervenka’s last minute goal, juggling the puck at chest height before turning to fire past Garipov, merely added a final gloss to a day and a series that belonged entirely to SKA.