(Metallurg leads the series 3-0)
Danis Zaripov scored two goals in the last four minutes of this game, snatching a dramatic victory for Metallurg and pushing Ak Bars to the brink of elimination in the Eastern Conference Final.
It seemed that home ice advantage was helping the Kazan team claw its way back into this series as the team led 2-1 going into the closing stages of game three … but Zaripov had other ideas. The former Ak Bars man has been in commanding form throughout these playoffs: his double tonight takes him to 15 goals and equals Evgeny Dadonov’s KHL post-season record with, potentially, a Grand Final series still to come. More importantly, his late salvo here turned the game around and a handy 2-1 lead was transformed into a commanding 3-0 advantage in the series.
The transformation began in the 57th minute. Zaripov’s 14th post-season goal came on the wraparound after Chris Lee’s slap shot thundered into the boards and left Emil Garipov sprawling across his crease to try to cover the danger. Jan Kovar’s quick-thinking steered the puck away from the goalie into Zaripov’s path behind the net, and the experienced goal-poacher reacted quickly to whisk it away behind the target and in at the opposite post.
Then came the game-winner on 58:38. Again, Kovar supplied the feed, collecting Viktor Antipin’s pass and sliding it into the danger zone. This time, even a crowd of defensemen couldn’t deny Zaripov, who turned neatly to place a low shot in off the post and secure a vital victory. The former Ak Bars player has now plundered four goals in three games in this series, and has found the net in seven of his last eight outings as the defending champion hunts an unprecedented third Gagarin Cup triumph.
Earlier, Ak Bars took the lead with a power play goal in the 13th minute. As the shots flew in on Vasily Koshechkin, Albert Yarullin saw his effort blocked. Jiri Sekac fed the puck out wide to Justin Azevedo, who picked his spot on the open side of Koshechkin’s net to make it 1-0.
The home team deserved to be in front, having the better of the opening period as Metallurg’s offense was strangely subdued for long periods and Magnitka picked up too many penalties. But the second period was almost the opposite, with the visitor creating far more dangerous moments and Ak Bars hitting penalty trouble of its own.
Twice, Metallurg hit the piping. In the 23rd minute, a Sergei Mozyakin shot flashed across the slot and hit the skate of Atte Ohtamaa. The Finnish defenseman watched in horror as the puck slid towards the net, only to be reprieved when it bounced off the post to safety. Then Tomas Filippi rattled the bar from close range as Ak Bars began to feel the pressure.
Finally, Magnitka converted one of its chances and, yet again, it was Mozyakin who made the difference. On the power play, he combined with Lee and Zaripov to probe at the home defense. Ak Bars worked hard at keeping the puck out on the fringes of the zone, but was powerless when a shooting lane opened up for Mozyakin at the top of the right-hand circle and he shot past Garipov as Kovar threw up a screen.
Ak Bars hit back, and regained the lead early in the third thanks to Mikhail Glukhov – with a bit of help from luckless D-man Alexander Budkin. After Koshechkin gave up a big rebound from a hopeful dump into the Metallurg zone, Glukhov was first to the puck and flew past Yaroslav Khabarov before whipping in a low shot. It looked to be going wide of the target until it got caught up in Budkin’s skates and the ricochet deceived Koshechkin and squeezed through his five-hole. With 14 minutes to play, the home crowd scented a win that would get their team firmly on the comeback trail … but Zaripov was ready to re-write the script in the closing minutes.
The teams meet again here in Kazan on Thursday, with Ak Bars knowing that only victory will suffice if its playoff run is to continue into the weekend.