The limp, lifeless, and sometimes hopeless Ak Bars we saw in Games 4 and 5 of this series is now a thing of the past. It was a lean, mean, fighting machine which stepped out onto the ice on Saturday, and they wanted to win right here, right now. And with Salavat Yulaev sticking to their philosophy that attack is the best form of defense, this match began to resemble Alexander Nevsky vanquishing the Teutonic Knights in the Battle on the Ice, only faster and more evenly matched, with both goals regularly under siege.
In the 12th minute, after a prolonged Ak Bars assault on the Ufa goal, Janne Pesonen fired the puck past Alexander Yeremenko into the net, spoiling the keeper’s 30th birthday in the process. And this was Pesonen’s first match back after a long lay-off with injury.
“Janne played very well today,” said Zinetula Bilyaletdinov, obviously happy for Pesonen and the team, “Although, of course, the fact he hasn’t trained for a long time took its toll.”
A battle ensued for the entire second period, both teams attacking in waves and both producing dangerous moments with impressive frequency, but somehow only one of these attacks resulted in a goal. A minute and a half before the break, Igor Grigorenko picked out the puck from a scramble around Petri Vehanen’s goal and fed an unmarked Alexander Radulov. The forward’s shot was perfection itself.
While the match had more than its fair share of flowing moves and attractive hockey, both goals were scrappy affairs. The battle for survival triumphed over aesthetics. Alexander Perezhogin was presented with a chance of a beautiful goal, finding himself one on one with Vehanen, but Petri would not be beaten.
All the same, in a match between two such classy sides there had to be a classy goal, and it duly arrived with just five minutes of regulation time remaining, from a fine three-man move featuring Alexei Morozov, Niko Kapanen, and finished off by Ilya Nikulin. The goal, incidentally, came when Oleg Tverdovsky was serving a two minute penalty - the visitors’ first and only penalty of the game.
When Perezhogin dislodged the goal with 165 seconds left it gave the spectators time to perform a ‘wave’ around the Palace of Sport, and allowed the Ufa men to arrange an impromptu time out and form a plan of action. Vyacheslav Bykov, judging it to be too early to risk all, left Yeremenko in goal. But when some icing allowed Bilyaletdinov to call a time out with just 47 seconds left, Bykov made the change and sent on a sixth skater. A change in the scoreline, however, was not to be. Ak Bars were in the Gagarin Cup final.
Vyacheslav Bykov shared his thoughts at the press conference:
“I have very mixed feelings. We had a mission and we didn’t accomplish it, we didn’t get to the final. But no way are we going to abandon our philosophy of playing attractive, attacking hockey. I hope this season has been entertaining for our supporters.”
“We’ve come out on top against a very strong opponent,” Zinetula Bilyaletdinov was unable to hide his delight, “At Ufa they have a great squad of players. As for my team, I’m pleased with the character of the guys. Their commitment has been unbelievable.”