Andy Potts Andy Potts
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Lars Johansson was beaten for the first time in this series, but CSKA recovered from losing an early goal to pick up yet another win. The Muscovites hit back with three quick goals in the second period before sealing the game with two empty net goals. Now Igor Nikitin’s team leads 3-0 in the series and is close to securing its place in yet another Gagarin Cup final.

SKA St. Petersburg 2 CSKA Moscow 5 (1-0, 0-3, 1-2)

(CSKA leads the series 3-0)

Despite CSKA’s strong start to the series, head coach Igor Nikitin reshuffled a little for this first meeting in Petersburg. Mario Kempe returned to the team in place of Brendan Leipsic, a familiar switch during this post season. In addition, Daniil Chaika replaced Marsel Ibragimov as the seventh defenseman. SKA also changed its back line, with Lukas Bengtsson rested as Anton Belov came in. That freed up an import slot, enabling Valery Bragin to bring back Magnus Hellberg as understudy to starting goalie Alexander Samonov. Youngsters Kirill Marchenko and Vladislav Tsitsyura also missed out, with Andrei Kuzmenko and Evgeny Ketov returning.

Photo: 06.04.21. KHL Championship 2020-2021. Playoffs. SKA (St.Petersburg) - CSKA (Moscow)

Before the game, there was much talk of Lars Johansson. The CSKA goalie was closing on two KHL records: if he kept SKA at bay for 35:21, he would overtake Mikko Koskinen’s record shut-out streak in a single playoff. And if the Swede could deny SKA for 45:14, he would beat Petri Vetanen’s overall playoff streak, which he set across the 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 seasons with Ak Bars.

SKA, however, had other ideas. Just 78 seconds into the game, the home team wrecked those records and scored a playoff goal on Johansson at last. Vladislav Kamenev won possession behind the net and set up Evgeny Timkin on the slot for a close-range finish that left the Swedish goalie with no chance. It took 293 minutes, but SKA finally had a playoff goal on CSKA’s netminder.

Almost immediately, the home team was close to a second. Straight from the face-off, Andrei Kuzmenko — restored to the team after missing game two in Moscow — stole the puck and advanced for a one-on-one with Johansson. This time, though, the Swede had the answers, padding away Kuzmenko’s effort.

CSKA soon had a power play chance, and Maxim Shalunov came close to tying the scores. But the home team continued to have the better of the game and might have extended its advantage when Dinar Khafizullin joined the offense and set up Ivan Morozov, who fired just over the crossbar.

However, the second period began with two quick goals from the visitor. Anton Slepyshev drew the Muscovites level on the power play when he scored at the back door after Nikita Soshnikov fired the puck across the face of the net. Then, two minutes later, John Gilmour stepped up from the point to shoot home through traffic and turn the game on its head.

SKA, sensing that the game and perhaps the series was slipping away, called a time-out. But to little avail. A penalty on Igor Ozhiganov saw CSKA add to its lead with Shalunov twice getting the opportunity to launch a one-timer from the right-hand circle. His first effort missed the mark but on the second bite at the cherry Shalunov found the inside of the far post to make it 3-1 and score for the fourth game in a row. That was the end of Samonov’s evening: three goals in less than four minutes persuaded Bragin to send Hellberg into the action.

The home team got a couple of chances on the power play as the middle session drew to a close, but the closest it came was when an error from Artyom Blazhiyevsky enabled Emil Galimov to get a one-on-one with Johansson. Once again, though, the visiting goalie came up with the stop and CSKA carried its two-goal lead into the second intermission.

The third period was always going to be about game management for the visitor. Crucially, Nikitin’s men tightened up the discipline, stopped the run of penalties that undermined their game towards the end of the second period and absorbed the home pressure with relatively few alarms.

Late in the third, though, SKA gave itself a lifeline. Galimov broke on the left and saw his shot blocked. This time, though, the home team had men on the slot and Ozhiganov was able to stuff home the rebound. With three minutes to play, it was a one-goal game once again and the home team could see a path to salvation.

However, that pathway was quickly blocked. With two minutes to play, Hellberg headed to the bench as SKA gambled on the extra skater to force a tying goal. However, an error from Timkin handed CSKA the puck in center ice and Mat Robinson scored into the empty net to end the contest. Seconds later, Konstantin Okulov added another empty-netter, rubbing salt in the home team’s wounds. Robinson, Okulov and their colleagues can wrap up the series on Thursday; SKA is already in the last-chance saloon.

Andy Potts Andy Potts
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