As the play-offs reach the final, crucial stage it is clear Ak Bars have lost their most potent weapon of the last few years – their first line.
Alexei Morozov now joins Danis Zaripov, still not recovered from the knock he picked up against Barys, in the Ak Bars injury list, forcing head coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov to improvise with the new combination of Jarkko Immonen - Niko Kapanen - Janne Pesonen. The three Finns, however, were not in the starting five; instead, the honor was entrusted to the all-Russian combination Nikita Alexeyev - Alexei Tereshchenko - Alexander Stepanov. The banal descriptions by some commentators lauding the “leadership and directness” of the Ak Bars attacking trio will now have to be canned.
“Who is to be the new leader?” pondered Bilyaletdinov, losing his best players one after another. “Every player has to make himself a leader.”
For the citizens of Kazan, however, it was time to take life easy. Soccer star Sergei Semak, captain of Rubin Kazan and Russia, attended with his wife, Anna, who joined in the party atmosphere by placing antlers on her famous husband’s head when his face was shown on the stadium’s video screens. This could invite some amusing headlines, as “to place horns on someone” is a Russian idiom meaning “to cuckold”.
The festive atmosphere vanished early in the second period, however, and it was a native of nearby Sverdlovsk and current resident of Kazan, Evgeny Fedorov, who spoiled the party, redirecting the puck into an empty net after a pass from Denis Mosalev.
“I had just been sent on, and at that moment Denis was keeping possession of the puck, as he does so well, and he enticed a defender toward him and made a pass that went straight through everyone. All I had to do was supply the finishing touch,” said Denis.
Within a few minutes faint whistles could be heard from the home crowd, although we should say that it was a reaction to Ak Bars failing miserably to take advantage of HC MVD defenseman Pavel Trakhanov’s penalty. The hosts responded with a five-minute whirlwind of attacking hockey, making the visitors’ zone more resemble the crater of the volcano now erupting in Iceland. The pressure soon told, and Roman Kukumberg pulled Ak Bars level.
“It’s the second time we’ve surrendered the initiative in the middle of the game,” lamented HC MVD forward Yury Dobryshkin. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence, but we’ll find a solution.”
The fact that Ak Bars spent most of the match in powerplay may have been a poisoned chalice. The disorder created by the numerical advantage resulted in Alexei Ugarov finding himself one on one with Petri Vehanen, and Ilya Nikulin picking up an unnecessary penalty.
This was followed by a pause for breath, as the visiting coach was apparently demanding that the officials award his side a penalty shot.
“Was I demanding a penalty shot? I often demand a lot…” was how Oleg Znarok summed up the incident and indeed himself.
“There were several moments which the referee saw differently to us,” commented Dobryshkin. “But this time things turned out better than ever.”
And in the 46th minute the Militia men showed the hosts how to make use of the man advantage with a wonderful powerplay goal, Filip Novak setting up Dobryshkin.
“That move may have looked like we just walked the puck in, but Fil did great to lure their defenders to him and attract all the opposition’s attention. All that was left for me to do was make sure I didn’t foul it up,” said Yury.
“I’m proud of my team,” was Znarok’s typically brief commentary. “Specifically? I’m proud of their team spirit.”