Andy Potts,
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Jokerit Helsinki 3 CSKA Moscow 4 (2-1, 1-3, 0-0)

(CSKA wins the series 4-2)

CSKA moved into the Western Conference Final, setting up another Army showdown against SKA next week. But the Moscow team had to battle hard to subdue Jokerit as the Finns led twice in this game before running out of steam in the closing stages.

Photo: 24.03.18. KHL Championship 2017/18. Playoffs. Jokerit (Helsinki) - CSKA (Moscow)

Following Thursday’s epic battle, which ended in the fifth period of overtime when Mika Niemi finally brought the game to a close, Jokerit opted to rest goalie Karri Ramo. The Finn made 83 saves in Moscow, but did not dress for Saturday’s encounter as Ryan Zapolski returned to the crease.

Zapolski, though, was the first goalie to concede, beaten in the 13th minute by Andrei Kuzmenko. The play started with Roman Lyubimov, who saw an overtime goal ruled out on Thursday, attempting to force something on the wraparound. The puck was cleared to Alexei Marchenko, who set up Kuzmenko for a close-range finish to the top shelf that left the American netminder with no chance.

Jokerit knew it had to win this game, and rallied to lead at the end of the first period. Two goals in 51 seconds turned the game upside down. Tommi Huhtala tied the scores before Eeli Tolvanen arrived at the back door to tuck away Brian O’Neill’s pass from the right. That tally took the young Finn to six goals for this playoff campaign, equalling Vitaly Kravtsov of Traktor in this year’s post season and claiming a share of Valery Nichushkin’s all-time goalscoring record for a junior in the KHL playoffs. However, Tolvanen’s first goal in this series would not, ultimately, be enough to extend his season with Jokerit.

CSKA began the second period on the power play and quickly tied the game – albeit with a stroke of good fortune. Mikhail Grigorenko passed the puck into the danger zone, but it was a big deflection off Oliver Lauridsen’s skate that took it beyond Zapolski’s despairing attempt to hook it off the line. Jokerit moved ahead again in the 24th minute, with CSKA’s stand-in goalie Lars Johansson beaten by his fellow Swede John Norman after Pekka Jormakka’s feed wrong-footed the visiting defense.

Sadly for Jokerit, that was as good as it got. CSKA knew that wrapping up the series on the night could make a huge difference to its recovery time, especially after the draining exertions of that Moscow epic and raised its game to get back in front. Kirill Petrov fired home the tying goal after Alexander Popov won an attacking face-off, then Johansson pulled off a great save to stop Norman scoring on the rebound after Petteri Wirtanen’s effort stretched the Army’s defenses.

The winner came thanks to the determination of Sergei Andronov. One of the less-heralded players for CSKA and Russia’s national team, he demonstrated his value with the 4-3 goal shortly after the midway point of the game. Battling away at a face-off, he eventually emerged with the puck and took it to the goalline. Advancing on the net from a tight angle, he rode his luck to get a looping deflection off Tommi Kivisto’s stick and saw the puck loop over Zapolski’s shoulder and into the net.

Jokerit had plenty of time to find a tying goal, but lost Huhtala when he picked up a game misconduct for his angry reaction after a too many men call. That slowed the home team’s progress as the second period drew to a close, and the third began with Jokerit unable to generate pressure on a power play of its own. CSKA maintained its discipline on defense, limiting the Finns to just six shots in the final frame and held on for victory in the game and the series.

A Conference Final between CSKA and SKA will be the third meeting between the two at this stage in the last four seasons. CSKA won the last one, in 2016, sweeping SKA before falling to Metallurg in the Gagarin Cup Final.

Andy Potts,
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