(CSKA leads the series 1-0)
CSKA was the last team to win the Gagarin Cup, claiming the title for the first time in 2019. After last season’s defense of the honor was curtailed due to the pandemic, Igor Nikitin’s team responded by topping the regular season table once again and setting up a Moscow derby for its first-round playoff action.
By contrast, Spartak struggled into the top eight and confirmed its playoff place in the final week of the season. But any thoughts of any easy time for the Army Men was quickly dispelled as a hard-fought clash went to overtime before it produced a goal.
During regular season, CSKA was clearly stronger than Spartak and that advantage translated into three wins from four meetings. However, two of those games went to overtime and all of them were decided by a single-goal margin, so expectations of a one-sided battle in the playoffs should always be tempered with caution.
And then there’s the coaching factor: with Oleg Znarok behind the Red-and-White bench, Spartak benefits from immense playoff experience and the know-how to get the best out of any roster. For all the form book might favor CSKA, nobody from the other side of Moscow was giving up on this series.
Spartak, notionally the away team even though both clubs share the same arena, almost shot themselves in the foot in the opening moments, though. A delayed penalty saw Julius Hudacek leave his net, only for inattentive play to send the puck perilously close to the open goal. Once Artyom Sergeyev was installed in the box, though, Spartak was able to continue its enterprising start although CSKA steadily grew into its task during an opening session light on clear scoring chances.
The second period was very different. Early on, Lukas Radil took a 5+20 for high sticks and that invited the Army Men onto the attack. Spartak killed the major penalty, but the balance of play moved decisively in CSKA’s favor and the Red-and-Blues dominated the game without finding a way past Hudacek.
In the third, both teams were more cautious: the price of any error increased exponentially with each passing minute and, in effect, overtime started early. Late in the game, Spartak got a chance to steal the verdict when Brendon Leipsic took a penalty, but even though Znarok called a time-out to dust down the playbook one last time, the game went to overtime.
In the extras, the game opened up somewhat and both teams had chances to grab a winner. However, the decisive blow came after eight minutes when CSKA won an attacking face-off and Konstantin Okulov found Maxim Shalunov between the hash marks. This time, at last, the forward found the target and CSKA was ahead in the series.
(Lokomotiv leads the series 1-0)
Lokomotiv began its revenge mission against the Jokerit team that defeated it in last year’s playoff with a tight verdict. In recent months, the Finns have enjoyed the edge over the Railwaymen. However, after a 4-2 series victory this time last year and three wins from four meetings in the regular season, Lauri Marjamaki’s team was unable to take its good form into the 2021 playoffs.
The Finns had grounds for optimism before the start of the series. Jokerit won its last three games of the regular season and — for pretty much the first time in the current campaign — could call upon an almost fully-fit roster, with only John Norman unavailable.
The teams began at a high tempo, but despite plenty of work for both goalies there were few clear-cut chances in the first period. The best of them fell to Lokomotiv midway through the session, when Andre Petersson flashed the puck across the face of goal and Vladimir Tkachyov was a whisker away from converting at the far post. Jokerit relied more on shots from distance, looking for the killer rebound or redirect to wrong-foot Eddie Pasquale in the home net. However, neither Tommi Kivisto nor Sami Lepisto were able to find the right shooting lane and the session ended goalless.
In the second period, Lokomotiv took control of the game and limited Jokerit to just four shots. However, it was a session of few clear scoring opportunities and much frustration — none more so than when the Finns engineered a two-on-one break only for Saku Maenalanen to fluff his lines when it came to the shot.
After that, Lokomotiv focused more on defense — eager to ensure that its lead survived until the final hooter. Jokerit did everything it could to find an equalizer, but Pasquale coped with the waves of Finnish offense and ended with 29 saves as he backstopped his team to the opening victory of the series.