Monday, 23 April 2018

Russian Champs Crowned

There have been numerous people who have suggested that one of the big-spending Russian clubs would win this year's KHL Gagarin Cup, but it turns out that no one told Andrei Markov, Rob Klinkhammer, Danis Zaripov, or Anton Lander that the fix was in. Ak Bars Kazan went out and beat CSKA Moscow in five games after CSKA did the KHL a favour by eliminating SKA St. Petersburg in the semifinal. If someone in the Russian government was trying to fix the Gagarin Cup Playoffs, I'm guessing he's on the unemployment line right now.

Game One went in favour of Ak Bars Kazan as they won 2-1 on the strength of a pair of Stanislav Galiyev goals. Game Two was settled by the same score as Justin Azevedo scored on the power-play and Rob Klinkhammer potted his first game-winning goal in the second period. Note that foreshadowing.

Game Three saw CSKA cut the series deficit in half as they earned a 3-2 win in overtime. Anton Lander and Stanislav scored late in the first to give Kazan the 2-1 lead through 20 minutes, but a second period goal by Greg Scott tied the game. The game would end at the 12:25 mark of overtime after Kirill Petrov dented twine, and CSKA trailed in the series 2-1.

Game Four saw Justin Azevedo open the scoring in the first period, Anton Lander made it 2-0 in the second, and then Lander iced the game late in the third period when he scored an empty-net goal to make it a 3-1 victory for Ak Bars Kazan, putting them up in the series 3-1 over their Moscovian rivals.

That would take us to yesterday's Game Five where CSKA had to win or their season was over. The first period was a scoreless frame that saw CSKA lead in shots 9-3 thanks in part to a late power-play after Kazan's Albert Yarullin was whistled for interference. After 20 minutes, we'd move to the second period looking for our first goal.

The second period saw CSKA really pour on the pressure thanks to a pair of penalties to Yarullin for holding and tripping, respectively, midway through the period as they held a 25-7 advantage in shots through 40 minutes. A late high-sticking penalty to CSKA's Mikhail Pashnin would carry over into the third period, but we'd see zero goals scored in the middle frame as Ak Bars Kazan and CSKA Moscow went to the third period tied 0-0.

That high-sticking penalty to Pashnin? That would be the break that Kazan needed. Just 1:06 into the third period, Rob Klinkhammer's deflection off an Anton Lander shot found room past Lars Johansson while on the power-play, and the Snow Leopards were up 1-0! Kazan held the edge in shots in the period with a 9-8 advantage, but goaltender Emil Garipov stood tall in the Kazan net as he denied all 33 CSKA shots he faced to pitch the shutout as Ak Bars Kazan earned the Gagarin Cup with the 1-0 win in Game Five!

It's the first Gagarin Cup since 2010 for Kazan when they won the first two Gagarin Cups in KHL history. Officially, they are the most successful team in the KHL's short history with three championships in ten seasons! Head coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov joins Oleg Znarok as the only coaches in KHL history with three championships on their resum├ęs while Danis Zaripov now has five Gagarin Cup championships to his name in his ten seasons in the KHL. That's pretty impressive!

Of the notable names one might recognize of the Gagarin Cup champions, Andrei Markov, Alexander Svitov, Alexander Burmistrov, and Jiri Sekac join the aforementioned Justin Avezedo, Rob Klinkhammer, Anton Lander, Stanislav Galiyev, and Danis Zaripov.

Zaripov, if you'll remember, was banned for two years from international play by the IIHF for doping in the 2014 Sochi Olympics, but appealed and has his suspension reduced to six months. That reduction in his ban allowed him to return to the KHL and help Kazan win the Gagarin Cup - an almost surreal result considering he'd still be on the sidelines if he had lost his appeal.

Forward Justin Azevedo was named MVP after potting 28 points in this year's playoffs, and it's his first Russian championship in three tries after missing out in 2014 and 2015. He's the first non-Russian player to be named as playoff MVP, and he certainly has earned the recognition after his many years of service in the KHL.

As it is, the win by Kazan was seen as an upset as CSKA boasted eight gold medal-winning Russian Olympians in their lineup compared to zero in Kazan's lineup. Granted, Rob Klinkhammer did win a bronze medal in PyeongChang, but when it came to the fix of having an Olympian-laden squad winning the Gagarin Cup, there were some who whispered that one of CSKA or, preferably, SKA St. Petersburg was to win the championship to validate the Russian Ice Hockey Federation's efforts this season.

Instead, a team of former NHL players mixed with some solid Russian talent won 4-1 in a series against Amur Khabarovsk, downed Metallurg Magnitogorsk 4-1, and swept aside Traktor Chelyabinsk in four games to arrive in the final against Russia's most storied club in the Red Army team. CSKA, who hasn't won the league championship since their heady Soviet days, missed out on their second opportunity in three seasons after they fell in the final in 2016 to Magnitogorsk.

But it was not to be for CSKA Moscow as the Snow Leopards from Kazan played nearly flawless hockey in winning all three games at home in the final by one-goal margins. They were the top team in the Eastern Conference, but they were the clear underdogs entering the final as they finished some 24 points back of CSKA, but Ak Bars Kazan stands atop the mountain today thanks to their solid team play, some key contributions, and an incredible effort in the face of what seemed like incredible odds.

They sound like champions to me!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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