Game 3 of the 2017 Gagarin Cup finals. Venue: Saint Petersburg. Date: Wednesday, the 12th of April, or Cosmonauts’ Day across the former USSR. The stories of the day: the series level at 1-1, Semin’s dry spell, indomitable Koshechkin, and many, many more. KHL.ru tries to unravel the key factors which will decide the teams’ fortunes in Act 3 of the drama, tonight, in Russia’s Northern Capital.
In the second match in Magnitogorsk, the hosts survived a first-period onslaught (the shot count was 17-2 in favor of SKA) and even drew first blood, thanks to a goal from Jan Kovar. Vadim Shipachyov soon leveled, but after that it was all Magnitka – a short-handed goal from Vladislav Kaletnik (only the second time a team has scored while killing a penalty in a Gagarin Cup final series – Dynamo Moscow recorded the first) and a late empty-netter from Tommi Santala ensured the series would be delicately balanced at 1-1 as the action moves westwards to Petersburg.
The Twelfth of April is an important date in Russia: Cosmonauts’ Day, and of course, it has a special resonance for all of us who are following the struggle to claim the trophy that bears the name and image of Yury Gagarin. And it was on this day, in 2009, that Ak Bars became the first winners of the Gagarin Cup, clinching the Championship with a 1-0 win over Lokomotiv in Kazan.
In our preview, we ponder some of the big questions in the run-up to tonight’s contest.
Metallurg forward Alexander Semin‘s account for this year’s knockout stage stands at 2 assists in 15 games, and if we include last season his goalless streak now stretches to 23 playoff matches. The two-time world champion has been lively in the Magnitka second line, but accurate shooting seems to have deserted him. Everything else is still there: his vision, positioning, movement, puck control, and he is capable of carving out his own chances if none come his way, but the ruthless finishing is absent. Resident khl.ru expert Sergei Gomolyako notes that Magnitka cannot rely too much on its fearsome first line, so it will be fascinating to see if Semin’s killer touch returns in Game 3.
Metallurg goaltender Vasily Koshechkin barely put a foot wrong in Game 1, but such was the quality of the visitors’ strike force that he allowed 5 goals on his home ice. In Game 2, however, he seemed to have become a one-man curse on the Petersburg men, who rattled off more than 100(!) shots at the Magnitka net, 43 of which were dealt with by Koshechkin. One can imagine the extra delight among the Metallurg management, who recently persuaded the formidable netminder to extend his contract with the Ural club, but what more can SKA do to get the better of Monday’s hero?
SKA is a team with undoubted attacking bite, and currently the sharpest fangs are Vadim Shipachyov and Nikita Gusev. Both players have notched points in both games – a goal and an assist from Shipachyov, and a pair of key passes from Gusev. The only other player to have recorded points in both encounters is experienced Magnitka defenseman Chris Lee, with an assist in each outing.
Of course, if Lee and his fellow D-men manage to keep Shipachyov and Gusev quiet, they might still be troubled by the most in-form player of all – Evgeny Dadonov.
HC Metallurg Vice-President Gennady Velichkin spoke with the assembled press pack after Game 2, and his delight at the victory was tempered by the knowledge that the most decisive battles still lie ahead:
- What happened to your team today in the early stages of the match. SKA had five times as many shots as Metallurg?
“Our understanding is that it’s not the number of shots, but the accuracy of the shooting that counts. Quality, not quantity.”
- After that performance, is it fair to say your goalie, Koshechkin, is some kind of god?
“No, but he is a great goaltender.”
- Do you agree that your short-handed goal late in the second period was the turning point?
“To some extent, yes. We had practiced this goal. The team worked on it in training yesterday.”
- How did you practice? You specifically trained to score with a man short?
“It’s very simple, and it’s how everyone trains. We practice playing the game at uneven strength, and that includes playing short-handed.”
- How does this season’s final compare with the one last season? A year ago, nearly everyone was betting on CSKA…
“It’s very difficult to answer that because it’s hard to find parallels and compare. A final is a final. Everyone is geared up for each match and anything can happen.”
When it’s a final, the players won’t pay much attention to whether the fans are shouting for or against them, so the roar from the stands in Petersburg will help us as much as the hosts. We have been through a lot together and have a wealth of experience in the playoffs. The louder the roar, the better for us.
- Is the current series score, 1-1, a fair reflection?
“Yes. The teams are evenly matched, and the score is a fair one.”
- How do see the next two games in Petersburg going? Will the home fans make it hard for you?
“I don’t think there is much of a difference. When it’s a final, the players won’t pay much attention to whether the fans are shouting for or against them, so the roar from the stands in Petersburg will help us as much as the hosts. We have been through a lot together and have a wealth of experience in the playoffs. The louder the roar, the better for us. The worst thing is to play in a silent stadium, so we call on all the SKA fans to cheer on their team.”
- Did you know that in every Gagarin Cup final to date, the team that won Game 2 has always gone on to win the trophy?
“No, I didn't know that, and I wouldn’t give it too much thought. We have a lot of work to do and hockey to play, and not the series moves to Saint Petersburg.”
SKA forward Sergei Shirokov, who is still awaiting his first goal of the finals, was confident his team could further enhance its performance in the forthcoming games on home ice.
“Things probably would have been easier now if we had taken our chances in the first period on Monday, but we did not convert our dominance into goals and we paid the price with the result. You say the winner of Game 2 in a final series has always gone on to win the Cup? I wouldn’t know about that, and this is my first final. As for that defeat, our performance at uneven strength played its part. You need to score in powerplay and we had plenty of good chances, but we hit the pipes, had some bad luck… we’ll do some further work on it. We know where we’re making mistakes and we know what we need to improve. It’s hard to judge if the 1-1 score is fair or not. We were the better team for much of Monday’s game, and we could have claimed a 2-0 series lead, but it didn’t work out like that and now we face two home games which we have to win.”
We just played the way we play. It’s the final, there’s lots of passion, and one defeat is not a disaster. The main thing for us is to get the puck in their zone, keep it there, create chances, and get up close, because there’ll be a lot of rebounds off the goalie. We must play better in front of the opposition net.
“Some experts are saying that Metallurg will tire if the series is a long one? We’re not paying any attention to those kinds of claims. Our coaches will tell us how to improve and we’ll go out and do what they say. If they tell us to get the puck behind the defenseman more often, then we’ll go out and do just that. We’ll do all we can to win.”
“On Monday, we just played the way we play. It’s the final, there’s lots of passion, and one defeat is not a disaster. The main thing for us is to get the puck in their zone, keep it there, create chances, and get up close, because there’ll be a lot of rebounds off the goalie. We must play better in front of the opposition net. Will it be easier playing in front of our own fans? We’ll see. We’ll try to do our jobs and win our home games. In the last game, Koshechkin came to their rescue, yes, but we also spurned a few chances. We had two chances for a powerplay goal and we failed to score, and that is why we didn’t win.” (credit: Championship)
Monday’s game passed without any of the participants sustaining a serious injury, so the news from the treatment rooms remains the same: Magnitogorsk’s Wojtek Wolski and SKA’s Vyacheslav Voynov will miss the final series, sadly, but a return for Petersburg’s Pavel Datsyuk has not been ruled out.
KHL referee Alexei Anisimov noted that calmer, cooler heads prevailed in the second match:
“In the first game, there were a lot of penalties, four of which were deemed worthy of a game misconduct. In the second encounter, it was clear the players had kept in mind how costly each penalty can be to their team. Emotion got the better of some players in the second period, and that was when most of the penalties occurred, but in the final twenty minutes the teams were clearly more focused and careful, knowing that even one minor mistake could prove highly expensive.”
Following the recent terrorist attack on the Saint Petersburg metro, SKA Hockey Club is to divert some of the proceeds from its home games in the Gagarin Cup final series to help the families of the victims.
With demand for match tickets far outstripping supply, the SKA management has organized a special fan zone at the Hockey City complex on Rossiysky Prospekt. For an entrance fee of only 50 rubles (0.9 USD), anyone can watch the big match on the big screen and enjoy a packed entertainment program. There is more information on the official SKA website.
Nor will Magnitogorsk be without support. An impressive contingent of up to 600 fans from the Steel City in the Urals have made the trip to Russia’s Northern Capital and will be cheering on their heroes from the Ice Palace stands.