(Ak Bars wins the series 4-0)
Ak Bars completed an Eastern Conference Final sweep of Traktor – and can now prepare for its fourth Gagarin Cup final.
Fittingly, in this 10th anniversary KHL season the winners of the inaugural KHL campaign will be back in the grand final. And, of the team that derailed Lokomotiv Yaroslavl in a seven-game thriller, Danis Zaripov is back in Ak Bars colors and heading for the sixth final of his KHL career. Meanwhile, his one-time scoring partner, Alexei Morozov, saw one of his club records overtaken: Justin Azevedo’s assist on Anton Lander’s game-winner moved the Canadian to 20 points for this year’s playoffs, improving on Morozov’s 19 in that first post-season success.
From memories of the past to the excitement of the present. Although this was a series sweep, Traktor was never blown away. Indeed, had it not been for Lander’s empty-net goal in this game, all four encounters would have been decided by a single marker. But in a game of narrow margins, the consistency of the Kazan team made all the difference. Ak Bars’ defense was slightly more solid; its offense fractionally more productive.
Traktor suffered a blow in the build-up to the game: two centres, Paul Szczechura and Alexander Rybakov failed to recover from injuries suffered in game three of the series and were forced to miss out. It put a hole in the host’s offensive options, and that was apparent in the early exchanges. Traktor managed just four shots at Emil Garipov as Ak Bars dominated the first period, and the visitor was already in front before the home team created a genuine chance of a goal.
That opening strike came from Mikhail Glukhov in the 15th minute. Anton Glinkin, playing against his former club, seized the initiative with a bold rush that took out two opponents and forced Traktor onto the back foot. His shot bounced kindly for Glukhov to score on the rebound and Ak Bars was on its way.
Traktor tied it up early in the second period, and once again it was Richard Gynge who found the net. The much-travelled Swede has never enjoyed a playoff like this one before, and scored his eighth post season goal when Alexander Chernikov picked him out with a great pass off the boards. But it could not usher in a change of fortune for the home team.
Lander’s game-winner came in the 33rd minute. The Swede took the puck behind the net, then gave it to Azevedo. He returned along the same path his team-mate had just taken, but his return pass found Lander between the hash marks. The finish was decisive, Traktor’s season was all but over.
The home team looked for a way back. Artyom Penkovsky went close before Alexei Kruchinin’s shot from the right almost presented Vitaly Kravtsov with a tying goal. Kravtsov, so impressive in the first two rounds of the playoffs, failed to score in the Conference Final; Ak Bars’ ability to stifle him and his line-mates had a big say in the outcome.
In the third period, Ak Bars did a good job of holding off the home offense. With the visitor bossing the play in center ice, Traktor struggled to get good looks at the net and its most dangerous moments came from the blue line. Ivan Vishnevsky’s shooting caused some anxiety, but his best effort flew just past the post. Then, in the final second, Lander collected the rebound after Azevedo’s shot at the empty net went wide and the Swede had a simple task to tap in a third goal. Azevedo’s assist, meanwhile, took him to 21 points for the playoffs, beating his personal best of 20 with Lev Prague in 2014. The Canadian now heads to his third Gagarin Cup Final, looking to improve in defeats to Metallurg and SKA in his earlier appearances.
Ak Bars now has time to rest while the Western Conference Final between SKA and CSKA resolves itself. At present, the two Army Clubs are locked at 2-2, with game five scheduled for Friday in St. Petersburg.