(CSKA leads the series 3-0)
Another Ilya Sorokin shut-out – his fifth of the playoffs – and another decisive display by CSKA’s forwards in the third period saw the Army Men collect a third victory in this season’s Gagarin Cup final. No team has ever secured a sweep in a KHL grand final but on Friday night CSKA could do just that by winning in Balashikha to capture its first ever Gagarin Cup. With Avangard mustering just two goals in 180 minutes of this series so far, it’s hard to back against the Muscovites completing the triumph and demonstrating how much they learned from last season’s disappointment against Ak Bars.
As on Wednesday, the game was deadlocked at 40 minutes. This time, though, CSKA had enjoyed the better of proceedings, with Avangard struggling to get shots at Ilya Sorokin in the Army Men’s net. It wasn’t exactly an unwillingness to attack; it was more about solid CSKA defense blocking shots and keeping the Hawks to the outside.
As the third frame began it felt like 20 minutes for Avangard to save the series. Recovering to 1-2 would give Bob Hartley’s team a path back into the grand final but trailing 0-3 would feel like the death knell. So starting the third period with a penalty on Evgeny Medvedev for delaying the game was the last thing Avangard needed. The home team killed the penalty, as it has done throughout this series so far, with Igor Bobkov making a smart save to deny Kirill Kaprizov when the CSKA youngster enjoyed time and space in front of the net.
But it wasn’t long after the teams returned to full strength that CSKA was able, once again, to make the key breakthrough. Captain Sergei Andronov got the opening goal, taking the puck from deep in his own zone and advancing. Avangard struggled to close him down, Medvedev’s attentions in his defensive zone enabled Andronov to use his opponent as a screen and fire a shot from the right channel that flashed across the face of Bobkov and bounced in off the far post. The first goal, always vital, was with the Army Men: so far in this postseason CSKA has never lost a game after scoring first.
That record was not about to change. Mikhail Grigorenko added an empty net goal for the second game running to seal the victory. This goal, too, was redolent of the frustrations that Avangard have endured in this grand final series. With Bobkov called to the bench, the home team launched a desperate surge in search of a tying goal. However, yet another attempt on goal failed to get through to Sorokin, Nikita Nesterov collected the loose puck and released Grigorenko to complete the victory. The CSKA forward moves to 13 goals and 21 points in this year’s playoffs – two clear as leading goalscorer and tied with Teemu Hartikainen for top scorer.
So where is it all going wrong for Omsk? Two goals in three games, shut out twice and facing the prospect of receiving the first ever Gagarin Cup final sweep, Avangard is in trouble. Yet the differences between the teams have been less vast than the raw stats might suggest. The issue has largely been down to some superb CSKA defense. Throughout regular and post season the Army Men have been tough to break down; in this series they’ve taken it to a new level. In tonight’s game Avangard managed a creditable 50 attempts on goal but could only get 16 of them through to Sorokin. With the goalie in impressive form, that was never likely to be enough. It’s not for the want of effort, but there may be a lack of guile when it come to unpicking a well-drilled blue line.
Then there’s the frustration of two big video calls going against Avangard. In game one, Andrei Stas was denied a goal that would have halved the deficit early in the second period and – potentially – put CSKA under pressure in the opening game. Tonight, even more crucially, the officials whistled off Denis Zernov’s opener. Three minutes into the second period Ansel Galimov came flying down the left and got the puck to the slot on the wraparound. Zernov was advancing and the puck came off his skate and into the net. Omsk believed it had the lead for the first time in the final series, but the video review ruled that Zernov had redirected the puck with his skate and the goal was waved off.
There are still positive signs for Bob Hartley’s team to take into game four. The PK remains hugely impressive with its focus on aggressive defense and a determination to stifle CSKA opportunities at source. The Army Men were 0-for-4 tonight, a Taylor Beck poke check on Kirill Kaprizov highlighting the resilience of Avangard’s special teams. But killing penalties alone can’t win games and unless Avangard can find a way to score regularly on CSKA, this series and this season will not have much longer to run.
Igor Nikitin, head coach, CSKA
It was a tough game. I think it took a lot out of both teams. We played well, maybe there was a bit of pressure to get this result but the guys coped with it. Right now we are seriously on our game. On the power play we had some good chances but their goalie played well. There’s still something to work on there. I can’t say we had a weak link today, all the guys worked hard.
I have no fears about complacency. All our guys understand perfectly well that we are up against a serious opponent.
What is Kirill Kaprizov’s role in the team at the moment?
In the previous game, the situation forced us to move him to a different line during the course of the game because Sergei Kalinin picked up an injury. Kirill played on two lines. Today we started as we planned. We’re happy with the lines that we have.
Bob Hartley, head coach, Avangard
Today was another tough game, almost a replica of the previous one. Of course it’s not easy to score on CSKA, but we’re working and creating chances. Bobkov was great again, he pulled off a couple of unbelievable saves to keep us in the game. All we can do now is keep going. Avangard isn’t about to give up.
Right from day one we wanted to generate a sense of pride in our club and now we’ll keep going with our heads held high. There weren’t many people who believed in us at the start of the series and there are even fewer of them left now, but we can’t let that bother us. I know it’s an old cliché, but all we can do is take it step by step and try to win each game as it comes. The next game is coming, we’ll prepare for it tomorrow.
What do you need to do to score a goal?
I think that’s a question for a lot of teams. If you look overall, in 19 games they’ve allowed 22 goals. In our situation it would be very easy to criticize our team or single out one or other of the players. But I don’t think that would give CSKA the credit it deserves. Their skaters are doing grate, Sorokin has been excellent. CSKA have put together some huge guys who don’t give you many chances.
I followed this year’s playoffs from day one and I understood right away that we would play CSKA or SKA if we got through all the rounds in the East. We realized that teams like that don’t allow five goals in a game and we were prepared for that.
We win as a team and we lose as a team.I’m not going to start criticizing anyone or singling anyone out. Avangard is a close-knit family. When I agreed to take on this job, Krylov and Sushinsky told me they were tired of all the scandal around the team, they wanted to see a close-knit roster. In hockey, you get mistakes everywhere. But all our mistakes, all our problems, stay in the locker room and we look for answers together. Everyone makes mistakes, it’s just that today CSKA made less of them.