(CSKA leads the series 3-1)
Down 0-3 in the Western Conference final, SKA turned to recent history for inspiration. Back in 2015, in the days of Artemy Panarin and Evgeny Dadonov, the Petersburg team trailed CSKA 0-3 at the same stage of the competition. However, guided by head coach Slava Bykov, they rallied to win not only the series but the Gagarin Cup — lifting the country’s top prize for the first time in the club’s history. That was the first, and only, time a KHL team recovered a three-game deficit in a playoff series. Now Valery Bragin — like Bykov, a former CSKA head coach — was looking to cause lightning to strike twice.
On the verge of elimination, Bragin made big changes. Goalie Magnus Hellberg returned to the starting line-up in place of Alexander Samonov and three experienced skaters also missed out. Vladimir Tkachyov, Anton Belov and team captain Evgeny Ketov were replaced by Kirill Marchenko, Kirill Kirsanov and Vladislav Tsitsyura. CSKA made no changes from the previous game.
The home team needed an early goal to set the tone in this game, and duly capped a bright start by opening the scoring after five minutes. Strong pressing pushed CSKA onto the back foot and after Podkolzin’s close-range shot flashed wide of the target, Stromwall retrieved the situation and set up Vey to score at the second attempt.
CSKA almost conjured an immediate response, with Sergei Andronov going close after a battle in front of Hellberg’s net, but the Swede was not greatly extended in the early stages of the game as SKA showed plenty of defensive discipline. At the other end, Lars Johansson endured an anxious moment when Stromwall fired the puck into the danger zone and Mat Robinson almost deflected inside the far post.
Stromwall was an active figure throughout, and the Swedish forward doubled SKA’s lead early in the second period. Artyom Shvets-Rogovoi had already gone close, but the CSKA defense did not heed that warning and left the former HC Sochi forward in acres of space between the hash marks. Thus, he was perfectly positioned to redirect Oscar Fantenberg’s point shot past Johansson. That ushered in a session that the home team dominated for long periods, with Podkolzin particularly impressive. It wasn’t until the closing stages that CSKA began to get a few opportunities, helped by penalties on Evgeny Timkin and then Vasily Tokranov.
After the visiting PP began to show a way back for the Muscovites, it was ironic that the first big chance of the third period came to CSKA on the penalty kill. Alexander Popov skated clear and tested Hellberg with a wrister that the home goalie dealt with comfortably. Back at equal strength, though, the visitor got on the board at last with Shalunov maintaining his record of a goal in each game of this series. Today’s contribution followed a defensive slip-up in the corner that allowed Maxim Mamin to win possession and set up his teammate for a backhander to the top corner from a central position.
Shalunov’s goal offered his team a lifeline, but almost immediately he found himself in the penalty box after a breach of the face-off rules. SKA’s Anton Burdasov almost took advantage of the power play, and much of the visitor’s momentum evaporated. It wasn’t until the latter half of the stanza that we saw evidence of the offensive threat posed by Konstantin Okulov’s line, and by that time the clock was already against CSKA.
And SKA would have the final word in this game. With less than a minute to play, Johansson left his net as his team pushed for a tying goal. However, CSKA never really looked to be in control of the game even with the extra skater and after Dinar Khafizullin won possession, Podkolzin fired into the empty net for a deserved goal. In doing so, he wrapped up a victory that keeps the series — and those memories of 2015 — very much alive.