Andy Potts,
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Metallurg Magnitogorsk 4 SKA St. Petersburg 5

(SKA leads the series 1-0)

This year’s Gagarin Cup Final promises goals, action and controversy … and game one of the series delivered in style. A high-scoring, hard-fought clash between two evenly-matched rivals eventually ended in SKA’s favor, but only after each team saw a player ejected from the game in a true battle in Magnitogorsk.

Evgeny Dadonov, SKA’s leading scorer when it won the cup in 2015, was the hero with two markers – including the game winner – as the visitor edged a hugely competitive encounter by the odd goal in nine.

The winner came in the 57th minute thanks to a moment of individual magic. Metallurg sought to clear its lines and played the puck into center ice. Dadonov collected it on his own blue line, and decided to take matters into his own hands. Embarking on a solo rush, he powered through the neutral zone, evaded the attentions of the home D-men waiting on the blue line and advanced to beat Vasily Koshechkin up close. That took SKA to 5-3, the first time either team had enjoyed a two-goal advantage, and not even a late strike from Magnitogorsk’s Tomas Filippi could change the script.

It was the decisive moment in a game full of compelling incident. An evenly-matched opening period hinged – as many expected in this series – on a power play goal. In the 15th minute, Jan Kovar was called for hooking. It seemed a somewhat careless infringement, given that Magnitka was on the attack at the time, and the consequences were still more severe. SKA, enjoying its first opportunity to flex its formidable muscles on the power play, duly converted the opportunity. D-to-D play on the blue line saw Patrik Hersley feed Anton Belov for a slap shot; Koshechkin had the answer to that one, but could not stop Evgeny Ketov stuffing home the rebound.

Metallurg quickly got a chance to respond in kind when Ilya Kablukov was cited for tripping seconds after SKA took the lead. The visitor’s PK, though, has been the strongest in post-season, and made it hard for the home offense to camp down in the SKA end. Viktor Antipin had the best chance, given space to get off a shot from close range, but he couldn’t find the net.

The second stanza, though, saw Magnitka find its scoring touch. Two goals in 81 seconds at the start of the middle session turned the game around. Evgeny Timkin, whose two goals in Moscow decided the destiny of last year’s final, tied the game on 21:50 when he got his stick to Yaroslav Kosov’s low shot and deflected the puck beyond Igor Shestyorkin. Then, on 23:11, Sergei Mozyakin pounced on a defensive error to put the home team in front for the first time. If there’s any player in this league who shouldn’t be presented with the puck in front of goal, it’s Mozyakin; when Ilya Kovalchuk’s wayward pass offered him the gift, the captain wasted no time in unwrapping it.

But Metallurg soon ran into new problems. Oskar Osala was ejected from the game for a high hit on Nikolai Prokhorkin, and after successfully killing the major penalty, Magnitka’s tiring defense coughed up possession in center ice and Nikita Gusev’s immaculate feed set Dadonov away to tie the game. Then, just Metallurg, SKA produced a quick-fire second goal to regain the lead. Prokhorkin shrugged off the effects of Osala’s hit to wrestle a chance on the slot; the video official found no evidence of goalie interference and the Army Men were back in front.

The game continued to ebb and flow; now it was SKA’s turn to suffer an ejection as Kovalchuk was penalized for a hit to Kovar’s head. Now the home power play did its thing, pulling together a slick combination to give Antipin the chance to tie the scores just before the second intermission.

SKA survived the rest of that penalty at the start of the third, and play became more cagey as both teams recognized the high price of any further errors. But the visitor forged ahead once again on 55 minutes through Hersley. The Swedish defenseman continued his habit of grabbing clutch goals in this post season with a shot so powerful that it went through the goal netting. A check on the video confirmed the goal, and with five to play, SKA was back in front. Dadonov then added his decisive contribution and that late Filippi strike put Magnitka back in contention in the final seconds, but SKA stayed in front to claim the early initiative in this series.

For Metallurg, this is familiar territory: last season the Steelmen began the final series by conceding five goals and suffering defeat. But on that occasion, Magnitka faced a CSKA team tasting the Gagarin Cup Final, and all its attendant pressures, for the first time. SKA, more experienced, may be less inclined to offer second chances when the series continues on Monday.

08.04.17. KHL Championship 2016/17. Playoffs. Final. Metallurg (Magnitogorsk) - SKA (St.Petersburg)

Andy Potts,
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