Ak Bars forward Justin Azevedo shared his thoughts with KHL.ru following Game 3 of the Eastern Conference final series against reigning champion Metallurg Magnitogorsk. The match ended in heartbreak for the Kazan men after the Gagarin Cup holders fought back from behind to claim a thrilling 3-2 victory and take a possibly unassailable 3-0 lead in the series, but no-one is in any doubt that Zinetula Bilyaletdinov’s team – the “White Leopards” of Kazan - will battle to the last.
It was Justin Azevedo who opened the scoring in last night’s contest. The 28-year-old Canadian had not scored for a month – not since his dramatic dying-seconds goal against Salavat Yulaev in a 2-1 victory in Game 4 of the Conference quarter final in Ufa – but yesterday, Ak Bars was on the receiving end of the game’s twists and turns. Sergei Mozyakin leveled for Magnitka before Mikhail Glukhov put the hosts back in front, but Danis Zaripov struck a late, quick-fire double, equaling Evgeny Dadonov’s record of 15 goals in a playoff campaign and bringing victory to the visitors.
The leopards must now lick their wounds and somehow claw their way back from 0-3 down in a playoff series. It is a daunting task, but not an impossible one. Only two seasons ago, SKA Saint Petersburg was trailing 0-3 in the Western Conference final against CSKA Moscow, and Vyacheslav Bykov’s men managed to dig deep enough to claim four successive victories, after which they won the Gagarin Cup final against none other than Justin Azevedo’s Ak Bars.
After last night’s third instalment of the series, coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov held a long meeting with the Ak Bars players, while the leading lights of the Magnitogorsk men kept up their self-imposed media silence during the series. On Thursday, March 30, we will be treated to Act 4 of the drama. The stage is once again Kazan, and the date is also the 36th birthday of the champions’ scoring sensation, Sergei Mozyakin.
Justin Azevedo gave his take on the story so far in a post-game interview with KHL.ru
“We failed to do what the head coach asked”
- Justin, you scored after nine games without a goal - your longest dry spell of the season.
Justin Azevedo: “I have had chances in every match, but only today did one of them result in a goal. Unfortunately, it did not help Ak Bars.”
- Your team played very well in the first period, had some powerplays, and created a lot of scoring chances, yet you failed to build a big lead. What was missing?
Justin Azevedo: “Yes, we had three powerplays and we really had a lot of chances – I think at least five shots on target - but in some places we were unlucky, and in others there was good play from the opposition defense and the big goaltender. In this series, we are up against a formidable team. It is very, very hard to score three goals in one period against Magnitka.”
“Zaripov is a fine and experienced hockey player. We just couldn't keep him and his partners at bay right to the end. It seems we were not quite prepared for this. Perhaps his first goal took its toll on us. By the time we raised our heads again, he’d scored his second”
- The Ak Bars coaching staff made some adjustments to the powerplay units. Did that have a big effect on the team’s performance?
Justin Azevedo: “I don't think so. We tried various combinations during the regular season.”
- After your team took the lead for the second time in the match, you seemed to struggle to create more scoring chances.
Justin Azevedo: “We failed to do what the head coach asked. Metallurg needed goals and they got them. We had a game plan, but we didn't play to it”
“We must improve our concentration. We have been allowing soft goals.”
- Your team stayed in the locker room for longer than usual after the game. Was there a big inquest?
Justin Azevedo: “No, nothing special. This was neither a routine regular season game nor the deciding match of the round. We had some things to talk about and discuss. We need to stay in the series, and we will do everything we can to make this possible.”
- The team has a lot of injuries. Will this have a big effect on the outcome of the series?
Justin Azevedo: “We have a big, friendly group here and we all play for one other. Yes, injuries happen during the most important games of the season, but I think that other teams are carrying their fair share of injuries when they go onto the ice.”
- One of Magnitogorsk’s leading players, Danis Zaripov, scored twice during the last four minutes of the game. He has been looking very sharp in this series, and all through the playoffs so far.
Justin Azevedo: “He is a fine and experienced hockey player. We just couldn't keep him and his partners at bay right to the end. It seems we were not quite prepared for this. Perhaps his first goal took its toll on us. By the time we raised our heads again, he’d scored his second.”
“We failed to do what the head coach asked. Metallurg needed goals and they got them. We had a game plan, but we didn't play to it. In some places we were unlucky, and in others there was good play from the opposition defense and the big guy in goal”
- What does Ak Bars need to improve most of all?
Justin Azevedo: “I think it’s our concentration. We have started to score, but the goals we’re allowing are too soft. We must fix this. We need to play to our best right up to the final second.”
- This is not the first time you have faced the Mozyakin – Kovar – Zaripov line in a playoff series. In 2014, you played against Magnitogorsk for Lev Prague in the Gagarin Cup final.
Justin Azevedo: “Oh, yes, and I think their game, their goals, and their passes speak for themselves. They pose a danger no matter who the opposition is. They are great players who can cause problems in any of their attacking raids.”
- What do you think about the next game? It could be the end of the season for Ak Bars.
Justin Azevedo: “We are playing at home, so anything is possible. But believe me, Ak Bars will never give up.”