Andy Potts,
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SKA St. Petersburg 3 Metallurg Magnitogorsk 2

(SKA leads the series 3-1)

A final-period fightback gave SKA its third victory in this series – and means Metallurg must win on home ice on Sunday if it is to continue its defense of the Gagarin Cup.

For once, SKA’s stellar offense was subdued; instead Dinar Khafizullin was the unlikely hero, snaffling up the game-winning goal in the 53rd minute. The defenseman, who earlier tied the game at 1-1 with a similar finish, reacted quickly after Patrik Hersley’s slap shot smashed into Vasily Koshechkin’s helmet. The goalie lay sprawled on the ice as Khafizullin stuffed home the rebound from close range.

But Metallurg’s disappointment was combined with a sense of grievance. First, the visiting team was unhappy that play continued with its goalie taken out of the game by a powerful blow to the head. And, moments earlier, Magnitka protested loudly at an interference call against Danis Zaripov after a collision on the edge of the SKA zone that abruptly halted a promising counter-attack for Jan Kovar.

Not that Khafizullin or SKA were greatly concerned about any protests. The defenseman’s second goal of the game was only his sixth game-winner in 377 career KHL outings and saw him double his career playoff tally in this clash. Previously the 28-year-old had scored the opener in game four of the Conference Final against Lokomotiv and claimed one goal in last year’s post season. Not for the first time, the big occasion calls for an unexpected hero to emerge and grab a vital marker, and Khafizullin joins Alexander Barabanov on SKA’s list of post season game winners with a modest track record of scoring goals.

The game started with a bang. Viktor Antipin put Metallurg in front after just 27 seconds, claiming the fastest ever goal in a Gagarin Cup Final game. SKA won the opening face-off, but little else went right for the host as Magnitka gained possession and Sergei Mozyakin threw a peach of a pass off the boards to the unmarked Antipin in the right-hand face-off circle. A backhand shot across the face of Mikko Koskinen found the top corner, and Metallurg had exactly the start it needed.

But, much like games two and three of this series, SKA was only interested in offense. The game was played almost exclusively around Koshechkin’s net and in the first period alone the visiting goalie made 23 saves. That was enough to preserve Metallurg’s lead into the first intermission, but early in the middle stanza the home team got the breakthrough it needed to tie the game.

Defenseman Khafizullin was the scorer, claiming only his second post-season marker when he reacted fastest to the rebound after Vadim Shipachyov’s shot bounced back into play from Koshechkin’s pads. The goal was as much a tribute to SKA’s on-going pressure rather than any particularly brilliant play: a more alert Metallurg defense would surely not have allowed Khafizullin to get into such a dangerous position without far closer attention.

Encouraged, the home team continued to press. But it was Metallurg that struck the next blow with a devastating counter attack from Oskar Osala. The Finn showed great speed as he raced on to Tommi Santala’s pass and burned down the left with Alexander Khokhlachyov in his wake. Osala’s shot fizzed inside Koskinen’s near post, and Metallurg led once again.

The lead did not last long, though. Early in the final stanza, Andrei Zubarev tied the game at 2-2 – despite shattering his stick in the process. Nikolai Prokhorkin’s shot from the boards bounced a long way from goal off Koshechkin’s pads, and Zubarev got into a race with Metallurg’s Yaroslav Kosov to reach the rebound first. Zubarev’s slap shot connected with the puck and his opponent’s stick; the SKA forward’s own weapon snapped on impact, while the deflection sent his shot on an unpredictable trajectory that left the goalie out of position.

The trajectory of this series, though, is starting to feel familiar. SKA’s previous Gagarin Cup triumph, two years ago, came in five games. Victory that time was sealed on the road in Kazan on a Sunday afternoon. This coming Sunday, SKA goes on the road to Magnitogorsk with the chance to repeat that success and join Metallurg, Ak Bars and Dynamo Moscow on two cup wins.

However, two men in the SKA camp will also recall a famous occasion when a team blew a 3-1 lead in the Gagarin Cup final. Head coach Oleg Znarok and defenseman Anton Belov were on opposing sides in 2012 when Avangard looked to be in command of its series against Dynamo. But Belov suffered a suspension, the Omsk defense began to wobble, and Znarok led the Muscovites to a memorable victory thanks to a solitary Jakub Klepis goal in Siberia. The destiny of the cup in 2017 is yet to be decided.

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

Andy Potts,
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