With defending champion Dynamo Moscow already booking their dates in the Gagarin Cup Final as the Western Conference Champions, it was time to see who would capture the Eastern Conference crown as third-seeded Traktor Chelyabinsk and top-seeded Ak Bars Kazan squared off in the final.
Ak Bars Kazan enters the Eastern Confence Final with an 8-3 record in the playoffs, having swept Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk out of the playoffs before surviving a seven-game scare from Salavat Yulaev Ufa. Much as he has done in his Russian SuperLeague/KHL career, Alexei Morozov is leading the way for his team. Konstantin Barulin has put up great numbers in the blue paint for the Snow Leopards. Traktor Chelyabinsk used all seven games to eliminate Barys Astana in the opening round before eliminating Avangard Omsk Oblast in five games to lead them to their 8-4 record. Petri Kontiola has been fantastic for Traktor in terms of scoring, and Michael Garnett has provided steady goaltending through the playoffs. It looked like a very close series on paper, so let's get to the action!
GAME ONE: Game One started out with both teams trying to limit chances, causing Kazan's Vadim Khomitsky to be whistled for holding just 1:30 in. Traktor would grab the lead 24 seconds into the powerplay as Evgeny Kuznetsov converted a pass from Stanislav Chistov to put Traktor up 1-0. Andrey Kostitsyn was called for the next penalty at 9:07 as he was caught for interference, and Kazan went to work on the powerplay. Danis Zaripov's shot found the twine on the powerplay at 10:19, and the two teams were knotted 1-1. It would be 54 minutes before the goal light flashed again as these two teams battled through regulation tied at 1-1. However, Traktor's Gennady Razin was whistled for tripping 3:37 into overtime, and Kazan scored the winner. Konstantin Korneyev's blast at 4:16 of overtime bulged the twine behind Michael Garnett, and Ak Bars Kazan took Game One by a 2-1 score. AK BARS KAZAN LEADS 1-0.
GAME TWO: After a tight-checking game in the opening game, Game Two felt much the same as the two teams allowed few scoring chances while at even-strength. It took a powerplay in the second period to open the scoring after Traktor's Anton Glinkin was called for hooking at 11:01. Denis Kulyash scored his first goal with the man-advantage at 12:55, and Kazan was up 1-0. Danis Zaripov would make it 2-0 for Kazan with 1:30 to play in the second period when his shot beat Michael Garnett. Jan Bulis' fourth goal at 12:37 of the final frame pulled Traktor within a goal, but Jarkko Immonen scored with 4:36 left to put Ak Bars Kazan up 3-1. Konstantin Barulin held the fort the rest of the way to put Kazan within two wins of the Gagarin Cup Final. AK BARS KAZAN LEADS 2-0.
GAME THREE: In the mood for another low-scoring game? The first goal in Game Three wouldn't be scored until 99 minutes had passed since the puck was dropped! Garnett and Barulin were spectacular in their respective nets in turning away chances when they were given, and neither blinked until the 98:59 mark of the game. In double-overtime, Anton Glinkin scored his first goal for Traktor to give them the win! Garnett stopped all 39 shots he saw while Barulin stopped 47 of 48 shots he faced. Traktor gets themselves back into the series with the 1-0 double-overtime win! AK BARS KAZAN LEADS 2-1.
GAME FOUR: Traktor had yet to score more than one goal in a game in this series, but Game Four proved everything wrong. Traktor's Valery Nichushkin opened the scoring just 2:57 in, and Maxim Yakutsenya made it a two-goal lead at 15:51. Alexei Morozov's powerplay goal with 1:17 left in the first period sent the teams to the dressing rooms with Traktor leading 2-1. Kazan carried the momentum into the second period as Denis Kulyash scored at 4:36 and Artyom Lukoyanov added another goal at 6:22 to put Ak Bars Kazan up 3-2. Jan Bulis would rally Traktor with a pair of powerplay goals at 16:32 and 19:03 to send Traktor back to the dressing rooms up up by a goal again at 4-3. 9:38 into the third period saw Petri Kontiola give Traktor a 5-3 lead, but Kazan stuck quickly in tying the game up as Alexei Morozov scored at 15:08 and Lauris Darzins added the tying goal at 15:36. The final horn sounded with the game tied at 5-5, that meant we were headed to overtime again! 16:50 into the extra frame, we had our winner as Kazan's Danis Zaripov ripped home the winner to give Kazan the 6-5 overtime victory and the strangle-hold on the series. AK BARS KAZAN LEADS 3-1.
GAME FIVE: One team was looking to close out the series while the other came in with its back against the wall. Jan Bulis put Traktor up at the 15:10 mark to give them some hope, and Michael Garnett looked unbeatable until the third period. Ilya Nikulin's powerplay goal beat Garnett at 9:51 of the final frame to tie the game at 1-1, and we were off to overtime for the fourth time in five games. It looked like we were going to have a double-overtime game, but Petri Kontiola scored with eight seconds left in period four to propel Traktor to the 2-1 overtime win. AK BARS KAZAN LEADS 3-2.
GAME SIX: Once again, Traktor needed a win to extend this series. Like the previous game, Jan Bulis put Traktor up with his powerplay goal at 8:16. 2:23 later, it was 2-0 for Traktor as Anton Glinkin potted his second playoff goal. That two-goal lead would last until 7:24 of the second period when Denis Golubev cut the deficit in half with his third goal. Andrei Popov put Traktor back up by a pair with his goal at 5:54, but things became tense when Alexei Morozov scored with 5:28 remaining to make it 3-2 in Traktor's favor. Despite the furious action around Traktor's net, Michael Garnett turned away every shot after Morozov's goal to give Traktor the 3-2 win, pushing this series into a seventh game. SERIES TIED AT 3-3.
GAME SEVEN: There have been collapses in the past in the KHL Playoffs, so Ak Bars Kazan had their last opportunity to close this series out. Traktor, having been down 2-0 and 3-1, had a chance to advance to their first Gagarin Cup Final with some impressive play over the last two games. Both teams weren't about to give the other a chance, so there weren't many chances seen in the early going. In fact, it took 31:18 for the first goal to be scored. With Konstantin Korneyev in the sin bin for hooking, Traktor's Vladimir Antipov netted his second goal for the 1-0 lead. This game looked similar to Game Three in that Traktor shut down Kazan time and again, but Janne Pesonen finally broke through with 5:52 to play to tie the game at 1-1. The final five minutes were furious as the teams went back and forth, and the fifth overtime game of this series looked inevitable. However, Andrei Kostitsyn picked a fine time to show up as his first goal of the playoffs with 29 seconds to play put Traktor up 2-1! Kazan threw everything they had at the Traktor net with Konstantin Barulin on the bench, but Michael Garnett didn't allow anything through to win the game and the series! TRAKTOR CHELYABINSK WINS 4-3.
Traktor Chelyabinsk advances to their first Gagarin Cup Final, meeting the defending champions in Dynamo Moscow. The two third-seeded teams finished very close in terms of points - Dynamo Moscow with 101, Traktor Chelyabinsk with 98 - so this series will be close in terms of how it is played. The Gagarin Cup Final started Saturday and continues all week. Game Four is scheduled for April 12, and we could have a winner by then! Needless to say, though, this Gagarin Cup Final should be an excellent series of hockey!
Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!