(Avangard wins the series 4-2)
Avangard booked its place in the Gagarin Cup final for the first time since 2012 – but it took an epic battle in Ufa to finish this series. After double overtime in game five, the teams went 20 minutes longer: Alexei Bondarev potted the winner in the 110th minute of a tense encounter in Bashkiria.
Ironically, it was Bondarev’s first goal in two-and-a-half years. His previous tally came in November 2016 when he was playing for Spartak away to Metallurg Novokuznetsk. Bondarev’s only previous playoff goal was scored for Metallurg Magnitogorsk in 2012 and his most recent goal for Avangard was back in his first spell with the club in 2010/11.
Bondarev’s goal was the 70th shot on Juha Metsola’s net and the 148th that Avangard attempted in the course of the game. The defenseman fired one in from the point and, with Viktor Stalberg providing the screen, Bondarev saw this one get past Metsola thanks to a deflection. The goalie had made 69 saves, Salavat Yulaev had blocked 34 shots … but now the resistance, and the season, was over for Ufa.
Avangard had shown a willingness to get pucks to the net throughout the game. In the first period, the visitor enjoyed a commanding 16-2 advantage on the shot count. However, that stat doesn’t tell the full story. The teams spent roughly equal amounts of time on the attack but Avangard managed to block nine efforts in the opening frame.
Both goalies were impressive, while the two teams also displayed a high level of discipline. As the teams traded attack for attack, the officials had little cause to intervene. Over the entire game there were just eight minutes of penalties – four apiece – as the chances continued to come and go. Perhaps the most glaring miss of regulation was also the last: with just five seconds to play, Sergei Shumakov failed to make contact when well placed in front of Metsola’s net. The joint leading playoff goalscorer could have wrapped up the series right then, instead the teams would play almost another full game to find a winner.
Overtime began with no goals on the scoreboard – that has happened just 15 times previously in KHL playoff action, although it did happen when these two met in the regular season. The first additional period was cautious, the second saw rather more attacking intent. Avangard, in particular, stepped up its offense and Metsola’s 63rd save of the night set a new individual record for a goalie in the KHL. Even when the puck got past him, it turned out the Finn had an answer – witness his reflexes to scoop the puck off the line with his stick late in the second period after a deflected effort looked like it might dribble into the net.
However, his opposite number Igor Bobkov also had work to do and made two fine stops to deny Joonas Kemppainen and Teemu Hartikainen as the game went to triple overtime for the first time ever in an Eastern Conference final. Bondarev finally stopped the clock on 109:18 and the first Gagarin Cup finalist was known.
Avangard will now wait until tomorrow to discover its opponent in the grand final. CSKA hosts SKA in game seven of the Western Conference final on Tuesday in Moscow. The Gagarin Cup final itself begins on Saturday with the Western representative starting with home advantage.
Bob Hartley, head coach, Avangard
First of all, I’d like to congratulate Avangard’s fans on this win. It’s been a great story, considering how we’ve had to play outside of Omsk all year. I’d also like to thank Salavat Yulaev for a great series – their team has really grown over the course of the season. Today’s game could have finished with any scoreline you like, it all came down to the finest of margins. It might have been 7-6 out there, but both goalies did great to keep it to 1-0.
Nikolai Tsulygin, head coach, Salavat Yulaev
Congratulations to Avangard on reaching the final. They’ve made a giant leap this season. Today’s game seemed harder for us, Avangard looked fresher out there. But I don’t believe we were beaten because of heart or character. I just want to thank the guys who fought on the ice and the fans who supported us so passionately in the arenas. Everybody battled for each other.