(Ak Bars leads the series 1-0)
This series pits one of the KHL’s most successful teams against a rare visitor to the playoffs. Ak Bars, twice a Gagarin Cup winner, once more a runner-up and a regular in every post-season since the league started, had the prestige and the reputation to make a match-up with Amur seem like a foregone conclusion.
However, the Khabarovsk team had reached only its second KHL playoff with a strong run of form in the latter half of the regular season. Moreover, in an unusually intense Eastern Conference, the gap between top seed Ak Bars and eighth-placed Amur was a mere 12 points; in the West, SKA enjoyed a 55-point cushion over its playoff opponent, Severstal. More evidence of the narrow gap between the teams: both Ak Bars and Amur had the same number of players – four – at the recent Olympic Winter Games. For Ak Bars, Rob Klinkhammer helped the Canadians to bronze, while Jiri Sekac, Anton Lander and Atte Ohtamaa represented the Czechs, Swedes and Finns respectively. Amur had Finnish goalie Juha Metsola, plus Czech trio Jan Kolar, Michal Jordan and Tomas Zohorna.
So it wasn’t so surprising that Ak Bars did not run away with the game from the first seconds. True, the home team had by far the bulk of the play in the first period, but a well-drilled visiting defense and solid goaltending from Metsola ensured the game was goalless at the first intermission.
Justin Azevedo broke the deadlock 17 seconds into the middle frame with a fine goal. Jiri Sekac played a no-look pass off the boards for Anton Lander; the Swede then found Azevedo with half the ice at his mercy and the Canadian took a couple of strides in from the point before blasting home the opener. Amur still had its chances, and even put the puck into Emil Garipov’s net in the 29th minute, only for the video review to spot a kicking motion by Vladislav Ushenin and rule out the score. Moments later, Ak Bars doubled its lead through Yaroslav Kosov and Amur’s prospects looked slim.
Stanislav Galiyev added a third midway through the final frame, and Garipov began his playoff campaign with a shut-out after turning away 17 shots from Amur as Ak Bars made a solid start to its 2018 Gagarin Cup bid.