(CSKA wins the series 4-2)
After its back-to-back losses in the series, CSKA responded by pairing import forwards Brendan Leipsic and Mario Kempe for the first time. They combined on the third line alongside Anton Slepyshev. Defenseman John Gilmour missed out to enable Igor Nikitin to accommodate two imports among his forwards. SKA was unchanged after its successive wins hauled it back into contention for a place in the Gagarin Cup final.
Although SKA made the brighter start, CSKA was able to absorb that early pressure and finished the first period strongly. Maxim Shalunov — a big player for the Muscovites throughout this series — was close to opening the scoring in the 15th minute when he arrived at the far post to get on the end of Maxim Mamin’s feed. On that occasion, though, Magnus Hellberg did the splits to keep his goal intact. A minute later, Leipsic flashed in a shot from the left channel and saw it clip the outside of the post before bouncing to safety. Then, late in the frame, Hellberg had to deny Sergei Andronov after the visiting forward was left all alone in front of the net.
All of that gave Valery Bragin plenty to discuss during the first intermission and his team emerged eager to reassert itself. The second period began with a flurry of chances for SKA, with Vasily Podkolzin, Malte Stromwall and Anton Burdasov all looking threatening in the first minutes. And the home team created its best chance midway through the second period when Andrei Kuzmenko’s solo rush was halted by Lars Johansson’s pads.
But it was the visitor that got in front, helped by an error from Hellberg. The Swede came out of his net to field the puck but sent it straight onto Leipsic’s stick. The Canadian forward went around the back of the net and set up Shalunov on the slot. A one-timer brought up the 28-year-old’s fifth goal of this series, with Hellberg struggling to see through traffic as the shot went over his glove.
And the home goalie was out of luck late in the middle frame when Maxim Sorkin doubled the CSKA lead. The youngster glided along the goal line to the net and flipped up a backhand shot that clipped the top of Hellberg’s blocker before hitting the post and bouncing of the netminder’s back and into the net.
The third period saw CSKA’s game management come to the fore. In a series where goals have always been hard to come by, a 2-0 lead looked formidable and Nikitin’s tactics ensured that the visitor deployed a solid defensive structure and challenged SKA to find the answers. The final frame was a masterclass of hard-working defense — 15 shots blocked in the session as the home team enjoyed plenty of possession but struggled to fashion genuine scoring chances. Podkolzin was closest to engineering a way back for his team: midway through the third, he went around the back to set up Viktor Antipin, but from three meters the defenseman was unable to beat Johansson. Then, moments later, he slung the puck to the slot where a deflection off Artyom Sergeyev’s skate almost took it into the net.
With three minutes on the clock, Bragin withdrew Hellberg and threw on an extra skater in a last bid to change the game. However, even with an extra man, there was no way through the CSKA defense as the visitor ruthlessly closed out the remaining seconds.
This is the third time in a row that CSKA has reached the Gagarin Cup final after contesting the 2018 and 2019 showcases before last year’s competition was curtailed due to the pandemic. Now Nikitin and his players await the conclusion of the Eastern Conference final to discover whether the 2021 Grand Final is to be a repeat of the 2019 showdown against Avangard, or a revenge mission against Ak Bars, the club that defeated the Army Men in the 2018 final.