When will Semin start scoring? How many times can Koshechkin come to the rescue? What changes will Ilya Vorobyov make for this fifth and possibly final game of the series? These and other intriguing questions are tackled here in the khl.ru preview of today’s momentous match in Magnitogorsk.
The fourth match on Friday did not take long to burst into life. Viktor Antipin put Magnitogorsk in front after only 27 seconds, setting a record for the fastest ever goal in a Gagarin Cup final series. Dinar Khafizullin pulled the hosts level early in the second period, but shortly after the halfway mark Oskar Osala restored Metallurg’s lead. The final third, however, belonged to the Army Men. Andrei Zubarev grabbed his second goal in as many games, and then Dinar Khafizullin scored his second of the night, giving SKA a 3-2 victory on home ice and a 3-1 lead in the series.
One of the finest forwards in Russia is still yet to score in this season’s playoffs, and if we include last year then his post-season drought stretches to 25 games. His place in the Magnitka second line has gone to Evgeny Timkin, and his appearances in the powerplay unit are now few and far between.
It seems that even the Magnitogorsk coaching staff are baffled by Semin’s lack of goals, and the reigning champion's passionate home fans will be hoping he snaps this spell in tonight’s all-or-nothing contest.
The performances from goaltender Vasily Koshechkin have been little short of phenomenal. In the last three games, the Metallurg netminder has faced 154 shots on his goal. In Game 2, the Petersburg men peppered the Magnitogorsk net with 44 attempts; this increased to 60 in the third encounter, and they rattled off 50 shots in Game 4. In these matches, Koshechkin allowed a total of six goals, so no fewer than 148 (!) shots were successfully dealt with by this colossus between the pipes, and yet, despite this huge workload, the goalie scarcely makes an error.
Koshechkin is one of those players whose presence leads a team to believe it can win every time it steps onto the ice. He is an accomplished master at dealing with shots from the blue line, melees around the crease, saving with the glove or the stick… the complete goalie. Granted, he was recently beaten by Andrei Zubarev from the red line, but this just illustrated his mental toughness – Koshechkin shrugged off the episode and continued in the same awesome form.
Nikita Gusev and Vadim Shipachyov continue to score points in every match of the Gagarin Cup finals. In Game 4, Gusev provided assists on all three SKA goals while Shipachyov combined with him to create the first. The latter has now notched points in each of his last eight games, and none of Magnitogorsk’s legendary predators can match this run of form. Even Chris Lee, who recorded assists in Games 1, 2 and 3, endured a fruitless evening in Petersburg on Friday.
The Magnitogorsk fans will be hoping Jan Kovar’s line will once again be the fearsome and destructive force which has destroyed so many defenses over the years, but the SKA rearguard coped admirably with Magnitka’s first troika in Friday’s meeting. Note that after the KHL top scorer Sergei Mozyakin assisted on Antipov’s shock opener, he failed to test goalie Mikko Koskinen with a single shot on target.
If we look at the aggregate goals tally of the games in this final, we see Magnitogorsk trails 10-11, which illustrates just how closely matched are the two protagonists. However, the statistic that counts is SKA’s 3-1 lead in the series, so obviously, something must change to reverse the course. Metallurg spent the last three matches playing stubbornly in defensive mode, which as we already noted, places a huge burden on Koshechkin. Should coach Ilya Vorobyov go on the attack in Game 5? Magnitogorsk has always been famous for its offensive prowess.
So far, SKA has dictated matters – keeping possession, claiming territorial advantage, and putting the men from the Urals under enough pressure to yield some valuable penalties. What would happen if Magnitka took the initiative? How would Oleg Znarok’s men cope if faced with such a Plan B?
Alternatively, it may be that Magnitogorsk will not change anything. Their tactics brought them tantalizingly close to victory on the road in Games 3 and 4, so possibly just a little more patience and perseverance will bring them success on home ice.
After Friday’s dramatic contest, SKA’s Andrei Zubarev, Dinar Khafizullin and Alexander Dergachyov shared their thoughts on the night’s events.
SKA defenseman Andrei Zubarev:
- What has happened to you, lately? You’ve become a sniper, a goalscorer.
- Yes, it seems my new sticks have arrived (smiles). Seriously, the team has been creating many chances, and I failed to convert quite a few of them this season. Maybe God looked kindly on us and thought He’d let me score a couple.
- You were practicing shootouts during the morning skate. Did you have a premonition of some kind?
- That’d be a strange premonition, as there are no shootouts in the playoffs. No, it was just to loosen our limbs.
- To what extent did Magnitka’s early goal disrupt the SKA game plan?
- It was unexpected, of course, but at the same time it stung the team into action and injected more cohesion in our play. Still, to start a game at 0-1 down, and fight back to beat such a great team is a huge task.
- In this match, only the defensemen scored for SKA...
- We are a team, so it doesn't matter – not even if it’s the goaltender getting the goals. What matters most is the win. No-one pays attention to the statistics, especially in the playoffs.
Each game is crucial, and for each game you have a specific mission. You saw for yourself that one incident can swing the game wildly one way or the other. It’s a waste of time trying to guess what will happen. You have to do all you can to win in every game you play
- You now have a 3-1 lead in the series. Do you feel that victory is near?
- You get that feeling after the fourth win, God willing.
- What is your take on SKA’s third goal?
- Did we score a third? I wouldn’t know. I was one the bench having a rest, and not looking at the hockey (smiles).
- How tough will the next game in Magnitogorsk be?
- Each game is crucial, and for each game you have a specific mission. You saw for yourself that one incident can swing the game wildly one way or the other. It’s a waste of time trying to guess what will happen. You have to do all you can to win in every game you play.
- You have a swollen lip – is that a present from Mr. Timkin?
- Yes, they’re hitting me as if I were one of the team’s leaders, and I have no idea why. Anyway, it’s a trial of strength, and good on him! He’s doing his job and he’s always been a tough opponent, especially in the playoffs. By the way, I must have shed a lot of weight, as I seem to be falling over all the time.
- When was the last time you broke your stick while shooting at goal?
- I wouldn't know. I’d never taken a shot at goal before.
SKA defenseman Dinar Khafizullin:
- Dinar, is attack the best form of defense?
- It turned out that way today. Their goalie was great, of course, and we had to play out of our skins to score against him.
- Were there any signs, omens, or dreams before the game? How come you suddenly score a double?
- No, nothing unusual; it was just my lucky day.
- Did the coaches tell you to get into the slot more often?
- Honestly, I can't answer that. I got there, and I scored from a couple of rebounds. It was just luck.
I think we play even better after we fall behind. I don't know why this happens. Don't tell anyone. The protests after the third goal? The puck struck the goalie’s helmet. It rebounded to me and I shot straight away.
- Why did the Magnitogorsk players protest about the third goal?
- The puck struck the goalie’s helmet, but the rules say you can finish off the move. The puck rebounded to me and I shot straight away.
- In addition to this victory, did your fellow defenseman, Yegor Rykov, get anything for his birthday?
- The win is enough. What more could anyone wish for (smiles)?
- Did the first goal sting the team into action?
- Yes, I think we play even better after we fall behind. I don't know why this happens. Don't tell anyone (smiles).
- Tell us the secret, what is the antidote to the Kovar line?
- We have these guys, defensemen, who play very well against forwards.
SKA forward Alexander Dergachyov:
- Was this game the most decisive one in the series?
- It was one of them. The final victory will be the decisive one.
- Magnitogorsk managed to hit you with a very early goal...
- To be honest, I was still getting settled and collecting my thoughts when – bang! – they had scored. I didn’t even see the move which led to the goal. That really helped me to focus (smiles).
- Did you change tactics?
- No. It was the first shift and confusion reigned for a few moments, but for the rest of the match we stuck to our game plan.
- How different was this match from the one before?
- Not especially different. The Metallurg guys play hockey their way, so all these games can be mapped out. Maybe they will surprise us in the next match. As for me, I always try to stay on the offensive and shoot more often.
- Evgeny Timkin seems in traditionally combative mood. Are you ready to play the role of enforcer, if needed?
- The whole team is ready!
Game 5 of the Gagarin Cup final series between Metallurg and SKA starts at 15:00. (Moscow Time) and will be broadcast live on KHL TV, KHL TV HD, and Match-TV.