This final series was a revenge mission for Avangard after its loss two years ago, but for forward Sergei Tolchinsky it was personal. He was a CSKA player in 2019 as the club advanced to its first Gagarin Cup triumph, but his playoff campaign was spent at the team’s farm club, Zvezda. A move to Avangard in the summer revitalized the 26-year-old forward, who finished the regular season with 46 (15+31) points in 51 games and added 20 more in the playoffs. Crucially, the last of those was the winning goal in game six, securing the trophy for the Hawks.
“I don’t know if it’s destiny or what, but the way it happened was just incredible,” he said. “I’m just happy that I got to experience something like this. I’m already out of things to say, I can’t even remember today’s goal, it’s like everything is in a fog, to be honest.”
After potting the cup-winning goal, Sergei Tolchinsky was named MVP for the 2021 playoffs. The Avangard forward also shared top spot in the scoring race with CSKA’s Konstantin Okulov. Both finished with 20 (6+14) points, although Okulov played two games fewer than his rival. Maxim Shalunov scored 12 goals, making him the leading goalscorer in post season. How big a difference might it have made if Shalunov had not been suspended for game five when Avangard blanked CSKA in Moscow?
6 goals, 14 assists, 20 points in 24 GP.— KHL (@khl_eng) April 28, 2021
Sergei Tolchinsky — 2021 Gagarin Cup Playoffs MVP! pic.twitter.com/tmDqfiYJhU
Avangard head coach Bob Hartley is the second foreigner to lead a team to Gagarin Cup glory. He follows the trail blazed by Mike Keenan with Metallurg in 2014. And, like Iron Mike, Hartley now boasts an elite achievement — he has won both the Stanley Cup and the Gagarin Cup in his illustrious coaching career. Keenan, famously, celebrated his victory in the locker room with an impromptu karaoke version of a popular Russian song; this year, to the traditional background of Freddie Mercury’s vocals, Hartley attempted a brief speech in Russian for the TV cameras: “Spasibo bolshoi, druzya! KHL, Omsky Avangard — otlichno!” (Thanks very much, my friends. The KHL, Avangard Omsk, it’s excellent!)
The final moments of game six summed up Avangard’s season for head coach Hartley.
“We finished the year 3-on-5, that’s the image of our hockey club,” Bob Hartley said. “Look at the number of blocked shots, look at the commitment. I’m so proud of this hockey club, so proud of this organization. You fans at home, this victory is for you.”
In total, Avangard blocked 39 shots in Wednesday’s 1-0 victory, stifling 81 attempts by CSKA, of which just 25 were on target.
The ties between the two teams run deep. As well as Tolchinsky’s time CSKA, the Army Men’s head coach Igor Nikitin was on the coaching staff at Avangard a decade ago and had his first taste of life behind the bench at the club.
“I’m grateful to Omsk for everything they did for me,” Sergei Tolchinsky said. “My parents still live there, it’s not a strange place for me. But I’m also grateful for the chance to work at CSKA and I’m grateful to our guys.
“I worked with Tolchinsky for two years. I congratulated him after the game, he deserves this win.”
Ilya Kovalchuk — World Champion, Olympic Champion and now three-time Gagarin Cup champion. Kovi returned to Russia this season, reuniting with Hartley, who coached him in Atlanta. Wearing the ‘A’, he produced 17 points in 16 games to help Avangard make a strong finish to the regular season before bringing his experience to the locker room for the playoff campaign.
“In these circumstances, I needed to come in and not disrupt anything,” the 38-year-old said. “We had the best power play and the best PK in the league, but the big thing was that we built a team and we became a family.”
Two of Kovi’s former team-mates at SKA, Ilya Kablukov and Maxim Chudinov also picked up a third Gagarin Cup win. Avangard club captain Alexei Emelin also featured in a champion playoff campaign for the third time, after playing for Ak Bars in the first two seasons of the KHL, but missed the final weeks of post season due to illness. A fourth player, Alexei Bereglazov, was at Metallurg during its two Gagarin Cup-winning seasons, but only featured in the 2016 playoffs.
CSKA goalie Lars Johansson had seven shut-outs during this year’s playoffs, setting a new KHL record despite finishing on the losing side in the final. The Swede blanked the opposition seven times in a campaign that had echoes of Anders Nilsson’s run in 2015. The Ak Bars goalie set the previous record, with six shut-outs in that run, but he too finished on the losing side as SKA lifted the cup.
Avangard forward Kirill Semyonov extended his run to 291 consecutive appearances since he rejoined the club in 2017. However, that came to a halt during the final series when he sat out game three. By that time, though, the Omsk graduate had set a KHL record for consecutive appearances. Now the 27-year-old is 289 games away from repeating that record!
This is Avangard’s first Gagarin Cup, and it comes after two near misses. Two years ago, CSKA swept the Hawks to win its first trophy. Much earlier, back in 2012, Avangard lost out to Dynamo Moscow in seven games, having led 3-1 in the series before Oleg Znarok’s team battled back. For CSKA, meanwhile, this was a fourth trip to the final hurdle — matching the record set by Ak Bars — and it ends with an unwelcome record third loss in the cup final.
It’s not just third time lucky for Avangard, this is also the third time Balashikha has hosted a Gagarin Cup final and the first time the home team lifted the cup. In 2010, Balashikha-based MVD was close to causing a sensation after taking an all-powerful Ak Bars team to seven games before losing the decider on home ice. Two years ago, Avangard brought the final to its temporary home, but could not register a victory as CSKA swept to victory. Today, though, the Moscow region town is ready to host a cup-winners’ party at last.
The Champions! pic.twitter.com/TZIUqtIOx2— KHL (@khl_eng) April 28, 2021