On a weekend dominated by established stars, youngster Andrei Altybarmakyan put his own name up in lights with a brilliant game-winning goal for team Chernyshov in the Grand Final.
The 2017 All-Star Game took on a new format: four teams representing the league’s four divisions and contesting semi-finals and the final over two 10-minute periods of four-on-four action. A further innovation saw the four top players from the MHL youth league’s Challenge Cup get an invite to Sunday’s big event. Altybarmakyan, who plays for SKA Silver Lions, produced a match-winning performance for Team West in the youth game and followed it up in some style playing with the league’s biggest stars.
His big moment came four minutes from the end of the final when he collected Maxim Shalunov’s pass, backed across the slot and bedazzled CSKA goalie Ilya Sorokin with some neat stick-handling before applying the backhand finish to make it 3-2.
Little wonder the youngster, who also claimed an assist as Sibir’s Shalunov opened the scoring in the final, described the day as a great occasion. “I never dreamed the day would go so well,” he said. “I’d like to thank everyone who organized such a festival for me personally and for all the guys here. The fans were terrific, even if some of them struggled to pronounce my surname!”
Altybarmakyan’s winner overshadowed the performance of Lokomotiv forward Brandon Kozun, who plunder four goals in two games for Team Tarasov. He blasted a hat-trick in the 6-2 semi-final win over Team Bobrov, and put Tarasov 2-1 up in the final. But an equalizer from Nigel Dawes (Barys) – just moments after he promised to go out and score on his next shift during an interview on KHL.TV – and Altybarmakyan’s winner saw Kozun finish on the losing side.
An All-Star final inevitably includes the coaching nous of Oleg Znarok and Ilya Vorobyov, and the playing skills of Sergei Mozyakin, Ilya Kovalchuk, Pavel Datsyuk & Co? Not this year, it didn’t. The two semi-finals saw all of those star names defeated, highlighting the strength in depth found in this season’s KHL.
The opening game saw Team Chernyshev edge a seven-goal thriller against Team Kharlamov thanks to two goals each from Kunlun Red Star’s Chad Rau and Salavat Yulaev’s Enver Lisin. Chernyshev goalie Igor Bobkov (Admiral Vladivostok) was caught out for the opening goal from Vladimir Tkachyov (Ak Bars) but redeemed himself with some big saves in this game and the final.
Mozyakin got a goal in his team’s defeat and only had one criticism of the new format. “The All-Star Game is always a big deal – the old format was entertaining, and so is this one,” he said. “The only problem was I didn’t get to play so much! But the event is a chance to catch up with the guys, meet friends who, unfortunately, we don’t get to see so much during the season. This time we were together for a couple of days, but we could have had an even longer break.”
The Western semi-final ended in a convincing 6-2 victory for Team Tarasov, led by Brandon Kozun’s hat-trick. The Lokomotiv man struck three times inside four minutes in the second period, while CSKA goalie Ilya Sorokin also performed wonders, including a penalty shot save to deny Slovan’s Jonathan Cheechoo. His CSKA colleague Ivan Telegin became a father on Saturday evening, and celebrated with a goal of his own … and Matryoshka doll as a small gift for the new arrival.
For Datsyuk, like Mozyakin, the only objection was that it was over too soon. “We could have played for much longer in front of a crowd like that,” said the veteran SKA forward. “At a festival like this one, it’s always an emotional experience, but the result was a surprise. Both teams prepared in the same locker room, and I didn’t expect them to go out and play like that.”
Altybarmakyan was the youngster who hit the headlines, but it was an unforgettable experience for his colleagues Anton Kovalyov (Omsk Haws, team Bobrov), Pavel Podluboshnov (Red Army, team Tarasov) and Kirill Tsulygin (Toplar Ufa, team Kharlamov).
Kovalyov claimed an assist on Matt Ellison’s opening goal for Team Bobrov in the semi-final, and later told reporters: “It’s been a priceless experience for me. Sure, Oleg Znarok and Sergei Gimayev had a bit of a go at me, but it was my fault, I can understand what it was all about. It doesn’t upset me, on the contrary it helps me develop.”
For young forward Podluboshnov the chance to rub shoulders with KHL record-breaker Sergei Mozyakin was something special. The two were team-mates, and not even a defeat in the semi-final could dampen the CSKA junior’s excitement. “It was a great pleasure to get to introduce myself to a player like Sergei [Mozyakin],” he said. “It was an honor to sit next to him on the bench and I even got his autograph. Nobody in the locker room made me feel out of place, it all went really well.”
For Tsulyin, a defenseman growing up in the Salavat Yulaev youth system, playing in Ufa was nothing new – but joining the biggest names in the league certainly was. “It was fantastic to step out on the ice with these players,” he said. “I hope all the other guys [from the MHL] had that same feeling. It wasn’t just about stars like Kovalchuk or Datsyuk, everyone here is a worthy player. I got autographs from all of them!”