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Saturday, 12 April 2014

Gagarin Cup Conference Finals

Two more teams would advance this week as the KHL's Gagarin Cup Playoffs went from four teams down to two teams with the conference finals being decided. Would there be upsets in this round? Could Mike Keenan's Metallurg Magnitogorsk team continue to plow through the Eastern Conference as the top-seeded team? Would Lev Prague be upset by Curtis Sanford and Lokomotiv Yaroslavl? Let's check out the action and find out who advances to play for the Gagarin Cup! And, as always, all overtime goals will be linked!

WEST - #3 Lev Prague vs. #8 Lokomotiv Yaroslavl

Lev entered this series 8-2 after having swept Medvescak Zagreb and downing Donbass Donetsk 4-2. They became the first non-Russian team to advance this far, and were looking to keep the good times rolling. They would meet upset-enjoying Lokomotiv Yaroslavl who bounced two-time defending champion Dynamo Moscow out of the tournament in seven games before dispatching Ilya Kovalchuk and SKA St. Petersburg in six games under their 8-5 record.

GAME ONE: The hometown fans in Prague would see their team hit the scoreboard first in Game One. With Lokomotiv killing off a penalty, Niko Kapanen threw the puck back to Marc-Andre Gragnani who one-time passes it to Ondrej Nemec in the high-slot, and his one-timer find the net behind Sanford on the powerplay to put Prague up 1-0 at the 14:14 mark. 45 seconds later, the party was on in Prague as Jakub Klepis' long wrister from the point through traffic finds its way past Sanford, and it was 2-0 Lev Prague. Petri Vehanen wouldn't need any help on this night, but Niko Kapanen would score late in the game on a bad turnover by Lokomotiv for the 3-0 lead. Vehanen stopped all 32 shots he faced for the victory. LEV PRAGUE LEADS 1-0.

GAME TWO: Once again, Prague got their fans into the game early. Petr Vrana's pass from the left circle cross-ice while on the powerplay to Nathan Oystrick found the target, and Oystrick's one-timer was fished out of the net by Sanford for the 1-0 Prague lead just 11:36 in. We'll jump ahead to the 18:17 mark when Patrik Zackrisson picked up a rebound in amongst a few pairs of feet in the slot, and he roofed it past Sanford for the 2-0 Prague lead. 9:20 into the third period saw Lokomotiv with a two-man advantage, and Sergei Plotnikov's cross-crease pass to Yegor Averin left little chance for Vehanen as Lokomotiv cut the lead to 2-1. However, Vehanen stopped all the rest in posting 34 of 35 saves to help Lev Prague take this one by a 2-1 count. LEV PRAGUE LEADS 2-0.

GAME THREE: The series shifts back to Yaroslavl, Russia where Lokomotiv needs to find a way to break through the wall known as Petri Vehanen. Lev would open the scoring once again in this one, though. Petr Vrana circled the net, finding Martin Thornberg in the slot on the powerplay at the 17:44 mark, and his shot beat Sanford for the 1-0 lead. We jump to late in the second with Prague on the powerplay once more. Mikko Maenpaa's shot from the slot bounces around wildly before Thornberg's second powerplay goal from the left of the net finds twine with 40 seconds in the period, and Prague goes up 2-0. 3:43 into the third sees Nathan Oystrick's shot from the top of the circle deflected by the defenceman in front of him, and the puck sails past Sanford once more for the 3-0 Lev lead. Once again, Vehanen is perfect on this night as he stops all 25 shots in the 3-0 victory! LEV PRAGUE LEADS 3-0.

GAME FOUR: Lokomotiv fans packed Arena-2000 to cheer on their team as they looked to bounce back from the brink of elimination. Lev wouldn't open the scoring in the first period tonight, but they would in the second period. Calle Ridderwall's shot from the left wing is kicked out by Sanford, but Jiri Novotny was last to touch it as the rebound goes in off a back-checking defenceman at 4:04 to put Lev up 1-0. At the 14:25 mark with Lokomotiv down a man, Sergei Plotnikov forces a turnover at the blueline where Yegor Yakovlev picks up the puck with a full head of steam, makes a couple of nice moves including a toe-drag in the slot, and beats Vehanen shorthanded what has to be the prettiest goal of the Gagarin Cup Playoffs thus far. Make it a 1-1 game. 4:22 later, with Plotnikov in the box after another massive hit, Petr Vrana would set up Nathan Oystrick in the high slot, and his wrist shot goes top-shelf for the powerplay goal to make it 2-1 Lev. We jump to 13:45 of the third period where Sergei Konkov takes a pass from Jonas Holos to the top of the left circle, and his wrist shot finds its way through Vehanen's wickets to tie the game up at 2-2! Neither team could find a winner after sixty minutes, so we were off to overtime where we'd see a winner at the 19:41 mark!
Sergei Plotnikov, who had a big game, cleaned up the Vladislav Kartayev rebound to keep Lokomotiv alive with the 3-2 overtime victory in Game Four! LEV PRAGUE LEADS 3-1.

GAME FIVE: Could the magic continue for Lokomotiv as the teams returned to the Czech Republic? Like every game in this series, Lev Prague opens the scoring just 10:45 into the game. Jakub Nakladal's point shot is tipped by Michal Repik as he's being tackled, and the puck gets past Sanford for the early 1-0 lead. 4:46 later, Prague is on the powerplay when Niko Kapanen feeds Justin Azevedo at the top of the circle, and his shot past a screened Sanford puts the home side up 2-0! But Lokomotiv strike back just 1:20 later when Mikelis Redlihs feeds Geoff Platt out in front of Vehanen, and he goes high on Vehanen to cut the lead to 2-1. Jump to the second at the 5:56 mark, Michal Repik and Michal Birner break in on the two-on-one, and Repik feeds Birner for the shot, but Sanford stops it. However, the rebound was kicked right back to Birner, and he makes no mistake on the second attempt, putting Lev Prague up 3-1. With 2:55 to play in the period, Geoff Platt scores an incredible goal to cut the lead to 3-2! Petri Vehanen was the story in the third, stopping all eleven shots he faced, in helping Lev Prague to the 3-2 win! LEV PRAGUE WINS 4-1.

EAST - #1 Metallurg Magnitogorsk vs. #4 Salavat Yulaev Ufa

Metallurg had been cruising in the playoffs, looking like a true top-seeded team as they handily dispatched Admiral Vladivostok 4-1 before dumping Sibir Novosibirsk in a sweep. Salavat Yulaev Ufa needed seven games to get past Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod before dispatching Barys Astana in six games to make it to the Eastern Conference Final.

GAME ONE: Just 4:08 in, the visitors took the lead. Alexander Mereskin's shot from the left side is stopped by Metallurg's Vitaly Koshechkin, but the puck goes off him in the air to the far post where Denis Khlystov uses some nice hand-eye coordination to bat the puck out of midair into the net for the 1-0 Ufa lead. 4:04 later sees Metallurg on the powerplay where Francis Pare snaps a shot from the left half-boards that is stopped by Andrei Vasilevsky, but the rebound pops out to a wide-open Mikhail Yunkov in the slot and he buries it to square the game at 1-1. 4:02 after that goal, Andrei Zubarev has the puck behind the Magnitogorsk net when he spots Teemu Hartikainen skating into the left face-off circle. Pass, shot, and goal by Hartikainen makes this a 2-1 game for Ufa. At the 17:57 mark, another beautiful goal is scored when Bogdan Potekhin pokes the puck past Alexei Kaigorodov at center ice for the breakaway! Potekhin opens up Vasilevsky with a backhand-forehand move before sliding the puck between his legs for the 2-2 equalizer! 6:26 into the second period sees Danis Zaripov behind the net with the puck, and he spots Sergei Mozyakin cruising into the zone down the right side of the slot. A tape-to-tape pass and a nice shot to the far side of the net past Vasilevsky puts Metallurg up 3-2! From there, it was all goaltending. Neither team could solve the men in between the pipes, meaning that Metallurg Magnitogorsk takes Game One by the 3-2 final. METALLURG MAGNITOGORSK LEADS 1-0.

GAME TWO: Just 9:26 in with Magnitogorsk on the powerplay, we get the opening goal. Chris Lee feedd Danis Zaripov at the top of the right face-off circle, and Zaripov's one-timer beats a screened Andrei Vasilevsky to put the home side up 1-0! Ufa would even the game with just one second in the period, though, when Teemu Hartikainen sends Antti Pihlstrom in the on the partial breakaway, and he avoids the Vitaly Koshechkin's poke-check to put the puck behind him for the 1-1 equalizer. 3:13 into the second period, Andrei Zubarev's blast from the point goes wide off the endboards to an uncovered Igor Mirnov, and he makes no mistake in potting the powerplay marker as Koshechkin was out of position for the 2-1 Ufa lead. We'll jump ahead to 9:10 of the third period where Yaroslav Kosov, wearing #68, looks like the more famous #68 as he jukes and plays keep away against a defender. After turning towards the net, Kosov spots Francis Pare with his stick on the ice, and the cross-crease pass leads to an easy tap-in for Pare and the 2-2 score. The final horn would sound with that same score, so it was off to overtime for some free hockey. However, free hockey would need a full period plus 1:05 to determine a winner in this one.
How do you let the leading scorer in the playoffs get that open to the right of your goaltender? Furthermore, who the heck was Ivan Vishnevsky covering on the left side? There's no one there! Sergei Mozyakin's backhander past Andrei Vasilevsky seals the deal for Metallurg in the 3-2 overtime victory. METALLURG MAGNITOGORSK LEADS 2-0.

GAME THREE: With the series shifting to Ufa Arena, Salavat needed something to go right for them if they hoped to make a series out this. Just 3:51 in, things would start right. Igor Mirnov's pass from the right face-off circle to the slot where Antti Pihlstrom is crashing finds Pihlstrom's tape, and the deflection is spot-on for the powerplay goal and the early 1-0 Ufa lead. We'll jump to the third period with that same score, and Ufa makes it a two-goal game. Alexander Stepanov fights off a defender to throw a backhand pass into the slot as he wheels behind the net, and Anton Slepyshev cashes in that pass at 5:28 mark for the 2-0 lead. 40 seconds later, with Magnitogorsk's Tim Brent watching from the sin bin, Kirill Koltsov's point shot is tipped in front by Antti Pihlstrom, and the puck finds its way past Koshechkin for the 3-0 Ufa lead. 8:14 after that has Ufa on the powerplay once more, Tomas Zaborsky finishes off a nice passing play in the slot for the 4-0 Ufa lead. Vasilevsky would only need one goal on this night as he stopped all 22 shots he faced for the shutout, but Ufa provided four in the 4-0 victory! METALLURG MAGNITOGORSK LEADS 2-1.

GAME FOUR: This game's opening goal comes in the second period. With Metallurg on the powerplay, they work the triangle passing extremely well. Jan Kovar send it down from the circle to Sergei Mozyakin down-low off to the left of the net who one-time passes it to Viktor Antipin in the slot. Antipin's one-timer finds twine behind Vasilevsky for the powerplay marker, and Metallurg leads 1-0. Vasily Koshechkin would be the story in this one, denying all 39 shots he faced from Ufa, and Ufa takes Game Four by the slimmest of margins thanks to Koshechkin's shutout in the 1-0 win! METALLURG MAGNITOGORSK LEADS 3-1.

GAME FIVE: With the series shifting back to Magnitogorsk, Salavat finds themselves with their backs against the walls. It's do-or-die time, and this one was a goaltending duel! I don't normaly show goaltending highlights in this one, but Andrei Vasilevsky was simply ridiculous at times in this game!
ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!? That's playoff goaltending, readers. Do anything you have to in order to keep the puck out of your net. Amazing saves there! However, neither goalie would allow a goal through regulation time, so it was off to overtime, tied 0-0, to determine a winner. And just 1:12 into the extra frame, we found the winner.
Bogdan Potekhin's pass out to the high slot found Yaroslav Khaborov, and his shot found the back of the net after 61 minutes of play for the 1-0 overtime victory! METALLURG MAGNITOGORSK WINS 4-1.

So that will leave just two teams standing: the Russian-based Metallurg Magnitogorsk versus the Czech-based Lev Prague.
Magnitogorsk finished the season with 108 points to Lev's 99 points based on more regulation-time wins, but teams look pretty even when comparing stats. However, the two regular-season games saw Metallurg rally in the third period of both games to salvage points. The game on October 7, 2013 saw Metallurg rally from a 2-1 deficit and a 3-2 deficit in the third period to tie the game 3-3 before winning 4-3 in overtime. The January 5 game had Metallurg trailing 2-1 entering the third period before the Russian squad scored three times en route to a 4-2 win. Needless to say, Lev needs to be better at holding leads against Magnitka if they hope to win this series and their first Gagarin Cup!

The Gagarin Cup Final starts on April 18! We'll have a recap after the series is over, and we'll look at who won, who lost, who played well, and who did not!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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