An event such as this one is not just about the hockey. Throughout a week of top-level action at the Gazprom Arenas, the organizers have sought to establish a festive atmosphere. On Thursday, fans could meet Russia’s Santa Claus, known as Ded Moroz, and his blonde granddaughter Snegurochka (think Elsa from Frozen, but with Slavic cheekbones). Olympic champion figure skater Alina Zagitova put on a guest performance and there was live music from popular Russian bands. Zagitova, whose father Ilnaz played hockey in Russia’s second tier for more than two decades, admitted that she had never performed before such a big crowd before.
Increasingly, clubs in the KHL are looking at ways to make an evening at the hockey into a family day out – SKA’s efforts this evening were a great example for everyone who is seeking to further broaden the appeal of the game.
On the ice, there was everything to play for. The two teams were separated by a single point at the top of the Western Conference. Not only was SKA eager to preserve that advantage, it also had a point to prove. Last season’s Russian Classic ended in a comfortable 4-0 victory for CSKA as the Muscovites continued a march that took them all the way to the Gagarin Cup.
Today’s game was a very different affair. Both teams were cautious, and for long periods they cancelled each other out. CSKA was the more eager to fire the puck to the net, SKA preferred a more measured build-up, but the gap in the shot count was not matched by the stats for time on offense.
There were chances: Linden Vey hit the bar for CSKA late in the first, Alexander Barabanov dinged a shot off the piping early in the second. But it was fast becoming clear that this was a game likely to be determined by the opening goal.
That goal arrived at last in the 50th minute, and it was the visitor who scored. Anton Slepyshev was the architect; his feed from behind the net was ideally placed for Sergei Kalinin to rifle home from close range. The SKA defense was scattered – Kalinin barely had an opposing player within sight – and the CSKA forward celebrated a goal against his former club and ended a two-month drought.
It was enough to win it and maintain CSKA’s stranglehold over its military rival from the north. Last season, all four meetings between the teams ended in Moscow’s favor; this time Igor Nikitin’s men won three out of four, with two further engagements to come in Moscow in the New Year. For now, though, SKA’s 12-game unbeaten run is at an end and CSKA has the lead in the West as the Red-and-Blues continue to impress in defense of last season’s triumph.
Boris Mikhailov, two-time Olympic Champion:
It was a great game, I’d say this was a real festival of Russian hockey. Petersburg knows how to put on a show and this city is used to staging sporting events at the very highest level. For me, this Russian Classic is comparable with the biggest of them all – the FIFA World Cup or IIHF World Championship. We had more than 60,000 fans! It was wonderful to be a part of this celebration.
Andrei Kuzmenko, forward, SKA:
It hurts. We worked so hard and an unforced error cost us a goal and lost us the game. Our games against CSKA will be really tight, it’s going to be really tough to get through center ice. They will be one-goal games. Today we made one mistake and we lost. This is a key game for us and for CSKA, so every mistake comes with a high price.
Ilya Sorokin, goalie, CSKA:
We could play the entire championship in football stadiums. It’s great when so many people come to watch the games. It doesn’t really change the game for me, my job is still to stop the puck. I didn’t pay much attention to the quality of the ice, I didn’t really notice how it was. But the quality of the game was like a playoff. Our guys went out there full of energy and in the first two periods SKA was limited to just seven shots. We kept hold of the puck, we played responsibility. That’s how we won the game.
Igor Nikitin, head coach, CSKA:
It was a good game. We didn’t see a lot of goals but both teams worked hard and there are genuinely skilled players both on our side and for SKA. That left few chances for the forwards. If you saw the football ‘Clasico’ between Barcelona and Real Madrid, that’s how we played this game. I’m pleased that we won, the guys deserved it. Everyone is desperate to beat an opponent like CSKA. The fact that so many fans came to the game is a real credit to the whole league.
Alexei Kudashov, head coach, SKA:
I can only thank our fans who came here and supported us in such great numbers. The game was always going to be decided by the first mistake and unfortunately we made it – that’s how it finished the way it did. From the start of the second period the ice wasn’t so great – we tried to play off the boards but the puck was bouncing awkwardly. Everything is a bit different here – the ice, the lighting, the arena.