Any match-up between Jokerit and SKA is a momentous occasion: the teams are fierce rivals at the top of the Western Conference, and there’s a local edge to these clashes across the Gulf of Finland. But today’s encounter was extra-special for several reasons.
This was the Helsinki Ice Challenge, the first ever open-air KHL game, played on a site that is almost sacred in the development of Finnish hockey. In a park where the earliest games of hockey were played in the capital, it attracted the biggest ever crowd for any KHL game, with 17,645 fans there to witness the spectacle. And, while Jokerit celebrated its 50thanniversary, SKA saw Ilya Kovalchuk become the club’s all-time record goal-scorer to help the league leader become the fastest team to reach 100 points in a season. SKA achieved that milestone in 38 games at an average of 2.68 points per game.
Kovalchuk opened the scoring in the ninth minute, rifling home a wrist shot over Karri Ramo’s shoulder after a nicely-weighted feed from Vadim Shipachyov. Ramo was unsighted by Vladislav Gavrikov’s presence on the slot and could do nothing as the puck whistled into the top corner. That made it 150 goals since joining SKA – initially on a temporary basis during the 2012-13 NHL lock-out – and took Kovi clear of Maxim Sushinsky’s previous record of 149. Kovalchuk finished the game with two more assists taking his career tally to 194 for the Petersburg team.
But it didn’t give SKA the lead for long: visiting goalie Mikko Koskinen wasn’t all that busy in the opening exchanges, and he couldn’t react in time to prevent Henri Ikonen tying the game two minutes after Kovi’s opener.
The visitor continued to press, and regained the lead thanks to some lovely skill by Alexander Barabanov. His deke tied Sami Lepisto up in knots, and his pass presented Jarno Koskiranta with the perfect chance to put his mark on the festivities in his homeland.
The second period saw Jokerit looking to stem the tide of SKA attacks and ensure that the league leader did not put the game out of reach. And the Finns did just that with a tying goal in the 27th minute when Tommi Huhtala fired home a one-timer after Marko Anttila came up with the puck following a battle in the corner. That sparked an exchange of views between Anttila and Kovalchuk, but the SKA captain came up with a riposte on the ice to help his team regain the lead. His unexpected pass sprang the Jokerit defense and Shipachyov cashed in to make it 3-2 at the second intermission.
Neutralizing the threat of young Jokerit star Eeli Tolvanen was a key part of SKA’s strategy on the night, and for much of the evening the visitor managed it. On the two occasions when the teenager did get a significant shooting chance, he was denied. First, he saw a wrister charged down, then Koskinen had the answer to his slap shot. And then, moments later, it was 4-2. Penalty trouble left Jokerit killing a 3-on-5 situation, and SKA’s offensive power was simply too great. Kovalchuk got involved again, starting off a slick combination that ended with Sergei Kalinin putting the puck in the net.
Jokerit wasn’t quite done: a late penalty saw the home team gamble on a spell of 6-on-4 hockey, and that enabled Peter Regin to reduce the deficit to a single goal. But the clock was always against the host and, despite a late flourish, there was no way to save the game and take this historic Helsinki Ice Challenge into overtime.