(Series tied at 1-1)
Nikitin responded with changes to his roster for game two. The headline grabber was a recall for Swedish forward Mario Kempe. That necessitated a rest for fellow import John Gilmour, while veteran Alexander Popov returned in place of Nikita Soshnikov. Young defenseman Daniil Chaika also returned to the team, with forward Yegor Afanasyev missing out.
Avangard, meanwhile, had little need to switch it up after such an impressive win at the weekend and Bob Hartley went with an unchanged team as the Hawks sought a seventh successive road win in this year’s playoffs. The last loss away from home came in Magnitogorsk on March 24 — and that thumping 1-7 defeat was beginning to look like a moment of catharsis for the team.
The big question for CSKA was about its offense. Everyone knows that Nikitin’s teams are immaculately disciplined on defense — during this year’s playoffs, goalie Lars Johansson had seven shut-outs, matching the KHL post season record — and even Sunday’s heavy loss was given a lopsided feel by a couple of late Avangard goals. However, there was a sense that the Army Men might be lacking a truly clinical forward. If the home team was unable to find the first goal, some suspected, the Hawks would have a great chance to pounce for another win.
In the first period, those uncertainties in front of Simon Hrubec’s net resurfaced. CSKA got on top, helped by frequent Avangard penalties in the latter stages of the frame, but once again there were few clear-cut chances. Despite having six-and-a-half minutes on the attack, the Army Men managed just seven shots at Hrubec — 12 further attempts were blocked as the home offense was in danger of misfiring once again.
In the second period, pressure began to produce clearer chances for the home team, but the game remained deadlocked deep into the frame. There was even a chance for Avangard to grab the lead against the run of play: Yegor Chinakhov got a rare breakaway and fired the puck to the slot, where a deflection set up Ilya Kovalchuk. This time, though, the veteran forward could not steer his shot on target.
Had Kovi scored, it would have been a success with only Avangard’s eighth shot of the game. Instead, CSKA took advantage of its reprieve almost immediately. A penalty on Reid Boucher gave the Army Men their fourth power play of the evening and this one paid off. Maxim Shalunov — already a contender for playoff MVP as the leading goalscorer of post season — potted his 11th when he fired home off Maxim Sorkin’s feed. Konstantin Okulov’s helper takes him to 17 (5+12) points, one behind leading playoff scorer Sergei Tolchinsky.
Within a couple of minutes, Shalunov and Okulov combined again to create another great chance for CSKA. This time, Max made the pass and Konstantin deked his way around his opponent, only for his backhand shot to drift wide of the target.
Early in the third, the home team doubled its lead. Artyom Sergeyev saw one point shot flash millimeters wide of Hrubec’s near post and, when the puck came back to him on the blue line, he repeated the trick with another thunderbolt that deflected off Anton Slepyshev and past the goalie. A brief video review confirmed that there was no improper use of the skate and the Army Men had a two-goal cushion to defend in the closing stages.
Given the discipline typical of Nikitin’s teams, that was always going to be a big ask for Avangard. And the Hawks’ faint hopes were soon extinguished altogether. As the visitor looked to force the pace, a huge gap down the middle of the ice enabled Bogdan Kiselevich to release Alexander Popov for the third goal. Popov, whose playoff beard features a sprinkling of salt among the pepper, represented Avangard for almost 20 years — including its first Gagarin Cup appearance back in 2012. Today, he came back to haunt his alma mater.
By now, the game was done. Avangard fashioned one more presentable chance but Yegor Chinakhov was unable to beat Lars Johansson in the closing stages as the Swede secured his seventh shut-out of the playoffs. That’s a KHL record, beating his compatriot Anders Nilsson, who had six blanks with Ak Bars in 2015. Johansson’s 20 saves today helped CSKA tie up the series ahead of Thursday’s game in Balashikha.