It was a tighter series than anyone expected, but SKA overcame Spartak in six games to become the fourth team to make the Western Conference semi-finals. The Petersburg team will now face Lokomotiv, while there’s a Moscow derby between CSKA and Dynamo in the offing.
(SKA wins the series 4-2)
It took some time for SKA’s pressure to pay off, however. The visitor enjoyed a commanding advantage in terms of shots and attacking possession but was once again struggling to solve Julius Hudacek in the Spartak net. The home team created few chances of its own but did come close to taking the lead midway through the second period when Mikhail Kotlyarevsky hit Magnus Hellberg’s post. The 21-year-old former Salavat Yulaev forward has only played a handful of games for Spartak but almost grabbed his first goal in dramatic circumstances.
SKA responded by ringing one of Hudacek’s piping a minute later. Nikita Gusev was denied on that occasion, but the leading scorer in the regular season was about to give his team a vital goal. It came in the 36th minute after Mikhail Maltsev’s shot from between the hash marks was blocked by Hudacek. The puck rattled around in front of the net, with Artyom Zub getting a touch and a home defenseman missing the chance to clear before Gusev stuffed it home. It was hardly the prettiest marker in this year’s playoffs but it brought SKA to the brink of progressing.
The first two periods saw SKA dominating on offense: the visitor was 26-8 up on shots after 40 minutes. The final frame, though, saw far less attacking endeavor from the visitor as it looked to its defense to secure the win. Spartak, though, struggled to generate opportunities and was caught out on the breakaway. Gusev began the move with a poke check deep in SKA’s zone. The puck broke for Pavel Datsyuk, who showed impressive pace for the oldest player in the competition as he led an odd man rush down the right. Sergei Plotnikov was alongside in support and gobbled up the dish from Datsyuk. 2-0 to SKA, and surely game over.
Not quite. This series has never been short of surprises and there was one more twist to come. Into the final two minutes, with Hudacek watching from the bench, Spartak pulled a goal back. Robin Hanzl wrestled the puck away from Alexander Barabanov, Ilya Zubov followed up to score on Hellberg. With 76 seconds left, could the Red-and-Whites produce another dramatic late rally to extend its season at least into overtime?
Ultimately, that was one sensation too far. SKA held on for those last moments and completed the series win. But for Spartak, there was great pride at putting so much pressure on one of the pre-tournament favorites.
Ilya Vorobyov, head coach, SKA
It was a good series for us, we got a lot from it. Today’s game was hard-fought, just like we expected. We got a goal from a rebound and then we played on the counter attack. The start of the series was horrific for us but we managed to get together and change the course of the games. The first series is always hard, psychologically. I hope that we’ll see Kuzmenko and Prokhorkin back soon. More than hope, I believe we will.
We’ve played Lokomotiv four times this season. We know what to expect. It’s a young aggressive team, they skate well.
Igor Ulanov, coach, Spartak
Not many people expected this kind of performance from Spartak. But Spartak is known as the People’s Team, the people were on our side and we could feel that. Our fans really helped us.
Today’s game was decided by the first mistake. SKA didn’t allow us opportunities and scored on us. There were moments where we could have got back into the game, there were even chances for us to go in front at the start. But in the playoffs, you need nerves of steel.
The guys battled for the full 60 minutes, we have to give them credit. We didn’t play badly throughout the series. But now we need to start thinking about next season. We’ll sit down and drawn our own conclusions about our team.