(Ak Bars wins the series 4-0)
Dmitry Kvartalnov’s team became the first to book its place in the Conference finals after outlasting a late fightback and defeating Salavat Yulaev 3-2. In doing so, it continued its proud record of silencing Ufa’s powerful Finnish strikeforce: club legend Teemu Hartikainen, and his compatriots Markus Granlund and Sakari Manninen failed to register a point in the first three games of the series, and by the time Harty assisted on Geoff Platt’s goal in the 56th minute, the outcome here was almost beyond doubt. Even a second late goal for the home team could not save Ufa, which paid the price for scoring just three goals in the first three games, and five in the whole series. Overall, this was a display of defensive dominance from Ak Bars that bodes well for the Tatar team’s hopes of securing a record-breaking fourth Gagarin Cup this season.
It was striking that, as early as the seventh minute, Salavat Yulaev head coach Tomi Lamsa was prepared to break up his Finnish forwards in search of a spark that might ignite his team’s spluttering offense. Geoff Platt briefly moved onto the first line alongside Granlund and Manninen, while Hartikainen dropped to line two with Danil Bashkirov and Alexander Kadeikin. However, the rotation did little to pressure the visitor: Manninen took two penalties in the first period and neither side was able to seriously test the goalies.
In the middle frame, at last, there were signs that Ufa’s offense was beginning to step up. The home team enjoyed a big territorial advantage and limited Ak Bars to just one shot on goal in the first half of the second period. However, Salavat Yulaev was unable to take its chances, with Bashkirov denied by Adam Reideborn and Granlund unable to get his shot away cleanly after Hartikainen went behind the net to set up his colleague.
And, almost inevitably, those misses were punished when Ak Bars scored twice in little over a minute late in the session. Kirill Petrov got the first, beating Juha Metsola at the second attempt after a spot of to-and-fro on the crease. It wasn’t the prettiest goal of the playoffs, but it made it two in two games for Petrov and broke the deadlock. It wasn’t long before the visitor doubled that lead, with Alexander Burmistrov surging down the right before spinning around to set up Dmitry Voronkov between the hash marks.
A two-goal lead at the second intermission felt like it would be too much for a home team that had not scored more than once in any game of this series. And when Stanislav Galiyev added a third 71 seconds after the restart, Salavat Yulaev’s season seemed to be ending with a whimper. Metsola was already done, replaced by Daniil Tarasov for the remainder of the game.
If it was all over bar the shouting, Grigory Panin was shouting louder than most. He laid some big hits on the Ak Bars team, particularly Harri Pesonen midway through the third. After clashing with Albert Yarullin, the home captain embroiled himself in a further skirmish with Patrice Cormier. Panin took a double minor for his pains, giving Ak Bars a power play to help run down the remaining minutes of the game.
The Finns finally made an impact in the last minutes of the game. Salavat Yulaev had already withdrawn Tarasov and was playing with a six skaters five minutes before the hooter. Indeed, Lamsa sent out five forwards, plus Philip Larsen, in a desperate bid to salvage the game. And, against the odds, it almost worked. First, Platt scored from close range off a Hartikainen helper to raise home hopes with four-and-a-half minutes left. Then Kadeikin made it 2-3 on 56:17, assisted by Granlund and Manninen, to raise hopes that the home team might have belatedly found a way to hurt Ak Bars.
However, there was not enough time to grab the all-important third goal. Salavat Yulaev continued to press, but could not generate one more clear shooting chance and Ak Bars held on to secure its place in the next round. The East’s top seed has yet to drop a game in the 2021 playoffs — can Avangard or Metallurg do better in the conference final?