(Avangard leads the series 2-1)
After two losses on home ice, Ak Bars made changes ahead of the first game in Balashikha. Timur Bilyalov returned in goal, replacing Adam Reideborn. There was also a welcome return for veteran Danis Zaripov, who replaced Harri Pesonen. Defenseman Mikael Wikstrand also missed out, with Alexander Burmistrov also joining the visitor’s offense. Avangard is still without captain Alexei Emelin, with the team awaiting the result of tests at a leading Moscow hospital to determine the defenseman’s condition.
The absence of Emelin, a lynchpin of the Hawks defense, brings back memories of Avangard’s 2012 Gagarin Cup final. On that occasion, the team had a two-game lead in the series but the loss of another key D-man, Anton Belov, turned the final around and Dynamo lifted the cup after game seven. Ak Bars might have taken some inspiration from that history as it produced a blistering start to Wednesday’s game. The visitor, which had managed just one goal in two games, opened the scoring here after just 74 seconds. Albert Yarullin’s shot came back off the boards and Nigel Dawes collected the rebound before setting up Roman Rukavishnikov between the hash marks.
It got even better for Dmitry Kvartalnov’s team in the eighth minute when Dmitry Voronkov doubled the lead. His redirect sent Trevor Murphy’s point shot looping over goalie Simon Hrubec and a video review confirmed that Zaripov’s high stick did not play the puck. There could have been even more goals: Dawes had three good chances either side of the second goal, but was unable to find the net.
Avangard offered little in reply, with a half chance for Ilya Kovalchuk providing the best hope for the home team in the first period. Ak Bars fired 20 shots at Hrubec’s net and seemed to be in complete control.
However, the middle frame was far more evenly matched. A bright start from the home team was disrupted by a penalty on Kovalchuk, but Ak Bars saw its own momentum halted when Burmistrov sat midway through the game. But the only goal of the stanza came with the teams at full strength. After an attack broke down, Corban Knight recycled the puck for Ville Pokka on the blue line. The Finn’s shot was redirected by Klim Kostin, beating Bilyalov and putting Avangard back in the game. The young forward’s emotional reaction to his third goal in this series showed just how big of a moment this was.
However, it was not the turning point that Avangard was hoping for. Ak Bars got a boost late in the second when a penalty on Alexander Khokhlachyov ensured the visitor would start the final frame on the power play. It did not bring a third goal, but it made it difficult for the Hawks to seize the initiative. And Kvartlanov’s team is one of the best in the league at game management, something it proved here. Ak Bars did a fine job of limiting Avangard’s opportunities and, for all the home team’s efforts, Bilyalov was rarely worked hard.
The best chance of a tying goal came five minutes from the end when Kirill Gotovets — a stay-at-home defenseman who suddenly blossomed into a productive blue liner in Kazan — got on the end of Khokhlachyov’s pass from behind the net and fired in a low shot that was hacked off the goal line. That pair combined again in the closing stages, with Gotovets going around the net and setting up his team-mate, but once again Bilyalov had the answers. With 22 seconds left, Avangard called a time-out but Burmistrov won a vital draw in front of his own net and Ak Bars was able to clear its line and prevent any final surge from the opposition. After three games of this series, we’re still waiting for a home win — and there is everything to play for in the next instalment on Friday.