(Avangard wins the Gagarin Cup 4-2)
Wednesday’s hard-fought victory saw Bob Hartley and his team avenge the loss they endured two years ago against CSKA. It’s been a longer wait than usual: although these are back-to-back finals, the 2020 campaign was lost to the pandemic, meaning Omsk had two years to wait before getting back to the final and, at last, winning the title. It’s longer still since 2012, when the Hawks led 3-1 against Dynamo Moscow in that year’s final, only for Oleg Znarok’s team to fight back and deliver a first major trophy for their coach. And it’s close to two decades since Avangard was last crowned champion of Russia after winning the Superleague in 2004.
Tolchinsky’s goal late in the first period separated the teams. It also cemented his position as Avangard’s leading scorer in the playoffs and put him dead level with CSKA’s Konstantin Okulov in the overall post season scoring race. The two players had identical records — 6 goals, 14 assists, 20 points — although Okulov played two games fewer.
CSKA welcomed back the top goalscorer in the playoffs, Maxim Shalunov. He missed game five through suspension but was available again tonight to replace Nikita Soshnikov. Shalunov was banned after a foul on Andrei Stas, who also returned to action after missing game. Youngster Yegor Chinakhov missed out for the first time in the final.
One of the striking things about this year’s final has been the change in CSKA’s style. In the regular season, typically, the Army Men got on top of the opposition not by firing in a relentless barrage of shots but by calmly and carefully probing until they fashioned a clear cut shooting opportunity. However, in the face of Avangard’s hugely disciplined defense — something that has gotten stronger throughout the series — things have had to change. Suddenly, Igor Nikitin’s team is showing greater readiness to shoot pucks at the net as often as possible, while the Hawks are seeing a sharp uptick in the number of blocked shots.
That was certainly the tale of the first period. In terms of saves, the teams were almost equal — 11 stops for Simon Hrubec, nine for Lars Johansson. In terms of attempts, CSKA had 25 against 15 for Avangard. The home team blocked 10 shots in that opening frame as the visitor looked to save the series with the help of a fusillade on the home net.
However, the tactic did not pay off. Neither team managed to create a really big chance in the opening frame and then, just before the intermission, Avangard found a way to get in front. Oliwer Kaski darted around the back of Johansson’s net and fed the puck to Sergei Tolchinsky just beyond the right-hand circle. The former CSKA man fired in a shot which deflected off Sergei Andronov’s stick, deceiving Johansson and giving Avangard the lead.
CSKA almost tied it up right away in the second. Mat Robinson saw a chance to abandon his defensive duties and surged down the right-hand channel, only to see his shot ding the iron and bounce to safety. It was as close as anyone came to scoring in the middle frame as tensions rose and chances were harder and harder to come by. Ilya Kovalchuk almost fashioned a breakthrough when he stole the puck from Mario Kempe and created a chance on the slot, but CSKA survived.
With the home crowd roaring its approval of every successful Avangard play — be it a pass, a hit, a clearance or a shot — the home team created more in the third. After CSKA again made a lively start, the Hawks responded with some clear-cut chances of their own. Alexander Khokhlachyov almost converted a three-man rush before Maxim Goncharov hit the frame of the net as the defenseman rushed forward in a manner reminiscent of Robinson’s earlier attempt. There was another anxious moment when Alexei Bereglazov’s deflected point shot dribbled wide of the net, just slipping away from the outstretched stick of a home forward ready to steer it into an unguarded net.
CSKA also had its chances, with Hrubec relieved to see a shot flash narrowly wide only to watch on as two quick penalties reduced his team to three skaters. Denis Zernov and Ville Pokka offended the officials just 12 seconds apart; with 4:22 on the clock, Avangard had a huge penalty to kill and the Army Men had one last, golden chance to save the game and the season.
However, this was Damir Sharipzyanov’s moment. In recent games the D-man grabbed the headlines for his scoring prowess; here he showed his mettle at the other end of the ice. Three blocked shots in quick succession meant more than a minute of that two-man advantage elapsed without Hrubec having to make a save. Nikitin called a time-out, looking to calm his troops and plot the play that would finally unlock this defense. It almost worked, but Hrubec pulled off one last big save to keep his goal intact.
Once Avangard returned to full strength, the clock was firmly in its favor. The Hawks successfully shut down the remaining couple of minutes before the final hooter sparked wild celebrations in the arena in Balashikha and back home in Siberia where many fans were waiting up as the clock ticked past midnight, anxiously rooting for their team.