Are Vadim Shipachyov and Nikita Gusev truly unstoppable? When will Danis Zaripov resume his prolific scoring? How will Magnitogorsk start the fourth game? These and other intriguing questions are tackled here in the khl.ru preview to Game 4 of the Gagarin Cup final.
Game 3 of this series turned out to be the toughest of all, for both teams. Regulation time ended with the teams tied at 1-1, after an accurate finish from Magnitka’s Denis Kazionov had canceled out SKA D-man Andrei Zubarev’s spectacular strike from the red line. The fans had to wait a long time for the all-important winning goal, but eventually, a smart shot from forward Evgeny Dadonov midway through the second overtime period gave the Petersburg men a 2-1 victory over Magnitogorsk and a 2-1 lead in the series.
In the second and third matches of this final saga, Metallurg spent the opening twenty minutes pinned back by a rampant SKA. While the Magnitka camp can rightly point out that in both games the scores were level at the end of the first period, few coaches would consider acceptable a shots-on-target count of 17-2 and 18-3 in the opponent’s favor. Resident khl.ru expert Alexei Badyukov says, “The role played by Metallurg goaltender Vasily Koshechkin has been immense. He has been likened to a wall, but has already outgrown that nickname and now he more resembles a colossus. Yes, he was beaten by Zubarev from the red line, but he didn't let it get to him. Koshechkin’s near-perfect performances inspire and instill confidence in his teammates, as they know that the last line of defense is a formidable one.”
Magnitogorsk forward Danis Zaripov has already racked up 15 goals in the current Gagarin Cup playoffs, but the last time he found the net was in the third match of the Eastern Conference final against Ak Bars, when his dramatic late double turned defeat into victory. The most dangerous predator of the post-season has now been quiet for four matches in a row, and Metallurg fans will be hoping he is ready to pounce once again.
Some pundits and fans have raised questions about Gusev’s work in defense, but the SKA forward continues to take points in every game and already has 4 assists in the bank. His partner, Vadim Shipachyov, has scored 3 (1+2) points in the series and his stats suggest he is even harder to stop: Wednesday’s assist meant he has taken points in each of the last seven matches and it was his 192nd in SKA colors, beating the previous record set by Maxim Sushinsky.
We mentioned in the Game 3 preview that Metallurg have only one player who had matched SKA’s deadly duo by scoring in Games 1 and 2 - the evergreen Chris Lee - and on Wednesday the Canadian defenseman duly provided the pass for Dmitry Kazionov. This was Lee’s 20th assist of the playoffs, matching the record haul by Sergei Mozyakin in the 2014 Gagarin Cup, and he has now notched points in five straight matches.
According to resident khl.ru expert Alexander Fomichyov, the slender 2-1 series lead, achieved thanks an overtime goal after a long and hard-fought contest, is nonetheless a huge psychological boost for Oleg Znarok’s men:
“Metallurg is now in a difficult position. Trailing 1-2 in the series is not a disaster, obviously, but they still have their backs to the wall. They cannot afford to lose on Friday, as a 1-3 deficit would be a far more serious obstacle to overcome. They would then need to win three times in a row, and against this SKA side, that resembles a real-life “Mission Impossible.” Therefore, this is a momentous match. Possibly, Magnitogorsk head coach Ilya Vorobyov will use all his aces in this fourth encounter. So far, Metallurg has leaned toward a more defensive style. When the other team has the puck, Magnitka has only one man pressing while the others retreat to the blue line. They are happy to surrender territory and possession, and rely on a swift counter-attack, but will they persevere with this strategy tonight?”
Following Wednesday’s dramatic finish, some of the victorious SKA players shared their thoughts with the press:
SKA defenseman Yegor Yakovlev:
- What do the coaches say to players during such long matches?
“They tell us to make fewer errors. This was the key to victory: we made one fewer mistake than they did, so we won.”
- Mentally, how tough was it to win this game?
“Very tough. We started well with a good first period. In the second we faltered slightly, and we allowed them to score with just six seconds left on the clock. That was quite a heavy blow, but we overcame it in the end. It’s great that we won.”
- Why was SKA misfiring on the powerplay tonight?
“Our opponents have done their homework, studied us, and tonight they dealt with our powerplay very well.”
- Was Zubarev’s goal inspired by the ones SKA allowed from Dynamo Moscow’s Kuteikin earlier in the playoffs?
How hard was it to defend against the physical power of the Osala and Filippi lines?
“It is tough, physically. There are tall guys and they play hard.”
- What impact did switching the goaltenders have on the team?
“No effect at all. Both our goalies are playing very well.”
SKA forward Nikita Gusev:
- You provided the pass for the decisive goal. Were you not tempted to shoot?
“At first, I intended to shoot, but I’d already had around four shots from the slot, with no success, so I changed my mind and passed to Dadonov.”
- For two games running, SKA has had trouble converting shots into goals.
“It means we’re not closing down the goalie and we’re not accurate enough in our shooting. If we get closer to the net, the goals will follow.”
- This was the longest match in the history of the Gagarin Cup finals. Do you have enough energy left for Friday’s game?
“Yes, of course.”
- There have been a lot of goals from the middle of the ice in this season’s playoffs...
“Yes, and today the puck bounced our way. It was our turn to have a little luck.”
- Did anyone make fun of Zubarev? It was his first ever goal for SKA.
“No, we congratulated him.”
Game 4 of the Gagarin Cup final series between SKA and Metallurg Magnitogorsk takes place on Friday, the 14th of April, at the Saint Petersburg Ice Palace. The match begins at 19:30 (Moscow Time) and will be broadcast live on KHL TV, KHL TV HD and Match-TV.