(Avangard wins the series 4-3)
Back on the ice, Sergei Tolchinsky led the charge into Ak Bars territory before spraying a pass to the left for Alexander Khokhlachyov. He moved the puck on to Oliwer Kaski, centrally placed, and the defenseman’s shot beat Timur Bilyalov on its way to the top shelf. After an epic battle in both this game and the series as a whole, Avangard had its place in the final and Ak Bars was left to wonder what might have been.
“It was just crazy, you can’t even try to explain it,” said Bob Hartley after the game. “The difference between two great teams came down to one shot, it’s as simple as that. Ak Bars deserve to be in that final just as much as we do.”
Kaski’s goal, his second of the evening, ensured that Avangard prevailed despite an impressive performance from Ak Bars’ young line of Dmitry Voronkov, Artyom Galimov and Ilya Safonov. With an average age of 20, the trio was involved in all three of the home team’s goals and pointed to a bright future for Dmitry Kvartalnov’s team despite the bitter disappointment of missing out today. Kvartalnov, unusually, altered a winning line-up, recalling Nigel Dawes after he missed out on the 2-0 success in Balashikha that brought everyone back to Kazan for today’s showdown. But there was still no place for Stephane Da Costa, with the home team trusting its home-grown talent in this crucial encounter.
The first period was surprisingly open, bringing three goals amid an exhibition of enterprising play not usually associated with the tension-tinged tumult of a game seven. In keeping with the overall theme of the series, the visitor opened the scoring. Avangard’s first goal came midway through the first period when Klim Kostin chased Roman Rukavishnikov into the corner, forced the turnover and got the puck to the net. From there, Kirill Semyonov stuffed it over the line at the second attempt.
This lead was short lived, though, with the Ak Bars youngsters combining for the first time a couple of minutes later. Safonov made the interception and released Galimov, who produced a fantastic defense-splitting pass to set up Voronkov for the tying goal. Avangard’s cause was not helped by confusion between its defensemen: Kaski was lured out of position by Galimov’s movement and with Semyon Chistyakov on a different wavelength, a gap emerged for Voronkov to score.
If Kaski contributed to his team’s downfall there, the Finn began to make amends right on the hooter. Semynov and Tolchinsky combined to set up a shooting chance, and the defenseman’s effort went through Timur Bilyalov’s pads to restore the Hawks’ advantage seconds before the intermission.
In the series so far, the visiting team had won every game and the team that scored first always came out on top. Ak Bars needed to step into uncharted territory to save its season. And, in the second period, the home team did just that. Step one was to frustrate the visiting offense, which enjoyed itself a bit too much in the first. Then it was time for that youthful line to step up and providing the scoring to turn the game around with a couple of late goals.
It started with Voronkov forcing a turnover in his own zone and getting the puck to Safonov. The 19-year-old surged up the ice with Albert Yarullin at his side. Damir Sharipzyanov came close to halting the raid, but could only steer the puck into Yarullin’s path and the defenseman made no mistake from between the hash marks, scoring his first of the playoffs and tying the scores. Then, two minutes later, Sharipzyanov was again left frustrated after losing a battle behind the net. This time, Safonov and Voronkov combined to present Galimov with a shooting chance and the ‘elder’ statesman of the line — at the ripe old age of 21 — put the home team up for the first time in the game.
However, that was not enough to win the game. Avangard hit back in the third period, dominating the opening exchanges and tying the game once more in the 50th minute. Kostin’s big hit kept Ak Bars pinned in its own end, Reid Boucher’s shot took a deflection in front of the net and Ville Pokka was on hand to pick up the loose puck and fire it under the crossbar. After that, both teams had chances — with Alexei Bereglazov’s 58th-minute slapshot perhaps the most testing for either goalie — but when the 60-minute mark arrived, both game and series were locked at 3-3.
Early in overtime, Ak Bars set a furious pace. So much so that Avangard had to call a time-out just two minutes into the extras after Galimov and Nikita Dynyak both went close to grabbing a winner and the Hawks had to ice the puck to clear their lines. Whatever Hartley had to say to his troops in that 30-second speech clearly did the trick: his team returned to the ice and grabbed the winner barely a minute later.
The Gagarin Cup final gets underway on Sunday, April 18 in Moscow, where CSKA will host Avangard for games one and two. The opening game starts at 1800 Moscow time.