(SKA wins the series 4-0)
SKA St. Petersburg completed a sweep of Lokomotiv to become the first team to book its place in this season’s Gagarin Cup final. Not for the first time in the series, Oleg Znarok’s team found a way to win in a tight game, withstanding a final-period storm from Loko to edge a 2-1 verdict in Yaroslavl.
The victory sends SKA to its second Grand Final in three years, while head coach Oleg Znarok etches a new chapter in the history books. He will take charge of a team in the Gagarin Cup final for a record fourth time, and has done so at three different clubs (MVD in 2010, Dynamo Moscow in 2012 and 2013, and now SKA).
It took time for SKA to find its way into the lead in this one. Loko edged the first period without finding a way past young goalie Igor Shestyorkin as he made his first start of the playoffs. But the visitor established a foothold in the game in the second stanza, aided by penalty trouble for the host. In the end, SKA’s pressure paid off with a power play goal midway through the game to open the scoring. Dinar Khafizullin, far from prolific, was the unlikely goalscorer. The defenseman was the visitor’s third pick on the blue line for the power play, and proved to be third time lucky as he collected a Vadim Shipachyov pass and shot home from a central position to claim his first playoff goal of the season and only his second career strike in post season. That was a stark reminder of one of the key differences between the teams in this game, and this series. Lokomotiv squandered two power play chances in the opening stanza; SKA, without ever reaching the blistering standards seen in the regular season, found the net on its third numerical advantage and edged Loko closer to the exit.
Khafizullin’s defensive colleague Anton Belov doubled the lead in the 35th minute, enjoying an unexpected amount of time and space to fire in a slap shot that beat Alexander Sudnitsin low to the glove side. Lokomotiv’s hopes of keeping the series alive were fading fast – and a penalty for Jakub Nakladal soon after seemed to pile further pressure on the host.
Instead, though, the Railwaymen hit back on that penalty kill. For a moment, there were echoes of the team’s first-round series, when it managed three short-handed goals against Dinamo Minsk. First, Petri Kontiola broke free and hit the post. Then came the goal: Nikita Cherepanov’s pass out of defense for Andrei Loktionov; Loktionov’s switch into the center for Alexander Kadeikin, who finished from close range to give the home team renewed hope.
That hope was almost fulfilled early in the third when Daniil Apalkov found himself wonderfully placed at the far post with Igor Shestyorkin out of position. The shot went wide of the mark. More chances followed. A crazy scramble around Shestyorkin’s net saw the puck trickle agonizingly past the post. Denis Mosalyov got a shooting chance right in front of SKA’s goalie; the attempt was blocked. Kontiola saw a shooting chance squashed by the combined impact of two opponents. The crowd roared its heroes forward, but it was turning into one of those nights where nothing would bounce kindly for Lokomotiv. When good fortune came, it was too late and at the wrong end: Ilya Kovalchuk fired wide of the empty net in the dying seconds, a kindly outcome that Loko needed in front of SKA’s net rather than its own. Not for the first time, fine margins made the difference as SKA marched on.