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The League's first open-air encounter, its longest ever match, a minute of madness in Ufa, and another all-Army classic. KHL.ru looks back at half-a-dozen of the best games from the tenth season of the Championship.
5 September 2017. Ufa
With the appointment of Erkka Westerlund as Salavat Yulaev's new head coach, many pundits and fans expressed fears that the Ufa team would lose a lot of entertainment value as the Finnish specialist, renowned for his teams' high level of discipline, would set about instilling a more cautious (or, if you prefer, boring) approach and doing away with Salavat Yulaev's traditionally dashing (or, if you prefer, reckless), offense-minded hockey. They need not have worried.
This match was already a mini-classic before the spectacular final minute. The men from Astana stunned the host with a left-right combination in the first period: Nigel Dawes opened the scoring in the ninth minute and Vladimir Markelov made it 2-0 a mere 44 seconds later. After the interval, Salavat hit back with a two-goal burst of its own: Joonas Kemppainen halving the deficit on a power play and Artyom Fyodorov leveling the score within 40 seconds.
There followed some tense cut-and-thrust as each side went in search of an all-important third, and it came when Teemu Hartikainen made it 3-2 to Salavat Yulaev with under 10 minutes remaining. That would and should have been the final word in a glorious comeback by the Ufa Men, but with a minute left on the clock, a penalty persuaded Barys to go all-or-nothing, and at 59:06 Dawes scored with his team playing 6-on-4. Marty St. Pierre followed this with the game-winner at 59:37, and to rub salt into the wound, Dawes completed his hat-trick with an empty netter.
After the match, the Ufa boss was asked for his view. “I just don’t understand how that can happen in professional hockey,” – said Westerlund, and he was not alone.
21 September, 2017. Moscow
Way back in the first full month's play of the tenth anniversary season, there was little hint of the drama awaiting both of these clubs. The mariners from the Far East would later be torn apart by backroom struggles, while in contrast, the capital's gladiators were to confound the pundits and reach the playoffs for the first time in many a year, but in early fall this match-up seemed to promise little more than a routine encounter between two of the League's more modest collectives. As things turned out, however, the game proved to be one of those classic, swashbuckling dramas which delight the fans, viewers, pundits and journalists, but which cause many a head coach to go gray overnight.
Admiral drew first blood with an early strike from Viktor Alexandrov, but the home side hit back through Dmitry Yudin and Igor Mirnov to go into the first interval in confident mood. The second period was even livelier, as James Wright and Vladimir Tkachyov scored to put Admiral back in front before the halfway mark, but Spartak rallied yet again, and goals from Anatoly Nikontsev and Evgeny Kulik gave them a 4-3 lead after Act 2 of the drama. .
The tables were turned yet again in the third period, and the Vladivostok team seemed to have wrapped up victory with a three-goal burst, one from Alexandrov followed by a double-strike from Damir Zhafyarov to give the visitors a 6-4 advantage, but once again, the Muscovites refused to buckle. Almost immediately, Ryan Stoa reduced the deficit to the bare minimum, and with one second of regulation time remaining, Alexei Pepelyayev scored to take the game into overtime. The last word belonged to Anatoly Nikontsev, who scored his second and his team's seventh of the night and clinched victory for the hosts. In all, the lead changed hands six(!) times during this classic match.
2 December, 2017. Helsinki
This was the historic Helsinki Ice Challenge – the first KHL match played under open skies - and a great many factors combined to make it a special occasion. An “ordinary” regular season game between Jokerit and SKA is always a fiercely contested derby, given the closeness of the two cities and the traditionally lofty positions of both clubs in the Western Conference standings, but this match was played on hallowed ground – the Helsinki park where hockey was first played in the country. There was also the date, as the event was part of Jokerit's 50th anniversary celebrations. After the match, the day became an important one in the history of SKA, as star captain Ilya Kovalchuk became the Petersburg club's all-time record goal-scorer
Kovalchuk scored that landmark goal, his 150th in SKA colors, in the ninth minute of the match, but the 1-0 lead was barely two minutes old when Henri Ikonen leveled the score and sparked scenes of wild celebration among the hardy Finnish fans who had packed the temporary stands put up for this occasion. The reigning champions regained the initiative with a goal from Finland's own Jarno Koskiranta, before the teams headed off for the first intermission and some much-needed hot drinks.
There was more joy for the fans in the 27th minute when Tommi Huhtala tied the game once again, but Kovalchuk set up Vadim Shipachyov to make it 3-2 at the end of the second session. The third period opened in promising fashion for the Finns, and young superstar Eeli Tolvanen started to break free from his escort and threaten Mikko Koskinen's goal, but then a couple of penalties saw Jokerit trying to stop SKA in a 3-on-5 and Sergei Kalinin took full advantage. There was still time for another power play goal. This time, SKA picked up a penalty, allowing Peter Regin to score in a 6-on-4, but the home team was unable to take the game to overtime.
The Helsinki Ice Challenge attracted a crowd of 17,645, the biggest ever attendance for any KHL game.
4 March, 2018. Ufa
Another occasion this season when Salavat Yulaev was involved in serving up a treat for the neutral fan, only this time the Ufa team emerged victorious. This was Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarter-final series against the Omsk Men, and both teams had enjoyed (or endured) a rollercoaster ride in the regular season, each taking turn to delight its fans by riding high in the divisional standings, and then posting a barren spell which cast doubt on playoff qualification. The hosts had made a strong finish to the regular season, and they carried that momentum into the opening stages of this match, surging into a 3-0 lead – Stanislav Gareyev, Maxim Mayorov and Teemu Hartikainen inflicting the damage – before the first period had barely crossed the halfway stage.
The home fans' smiles faded soon after the start of the second period, when Avangard produced a quick two-goal salvo – Dmitry Kugryshev and Maxim Mineyev the scorers – to make the game a contest once again, but Linus Omark soothed Ufa nerves by making it 4-2 going into the second interval. History repeated itself in the first half of the final stanza, with another two-goal burst from the Omsk Men. Pyotr Khokhryakov and Ansel Galimov tied the contest at 4-4, but a fairy-tale comeback was beyond Avangard. With 10 minutes left on the clock, Philip Larsen made it 5-4 to Salavat Yulaev, and then Hartikainen claimed his second goal and fifth point of the night, and the Ufa fans could breathe again.
22 March, 2018. Moscow
Having given the KHL the largest crowd in its history, Jokerit continued to break records in its 50th anniversary season, this time taking part in the longest ever game in the KHL. The Jokers stepped onto the Moscow ice knowing that defeat would mean the end of their season, and perhaps it was the resultant sense of urgency which helped them take the lead inside the first four minutes. The Finns, however, were soon reminded of the quality of the opposition when young Kirill Kaprizov scored with a spectacular backhanded shot to tie the score midway through the opening period.
What followed was a war of attrition. The next two periods of regulation time were goalless, as were the first four periods of overtime. The hero of this epic resistance from the Finns was veteran netminder Karri Ramo, who produced no fewer than 81 saves (and was blameless for Kaprizov's goal). Soon the teams had broken the previous record for the longest game, set in 2014 by the two now-departed teams from Prague and Donetsk, who battled away for 126 minutes and 14 seconds. This epic was to last for 142 minutes and 04 seconds, before the golden goal by Mika Niemi ended the game and kept the Helsinki team's season alive.
29 March, 2018. Saint Petersburg
The reigning champion made a valiant and often thrilling defense of its crown during this tenth season, and began the regular season with a record-smashing winning streak, but their fellow Army Men from Moscow ended the Petersburg team's season in a classic Western Conference final series, which got off to a flying start with a goal-packed Game 1 at the Northern Capital's Ice Palace.
A lively and combative first period ended with SKA 1-0 ahead, thanks to a Pavel Datsyuk goal in the seventh minute. CSKA hit back straight after the interval through Mikhail Grigorenko, from a superbly disguised pass from Kirill Kaprizov, and soon took the lead through Andrei Kuzmenko, but Nikolai Prokhorkin pulled SKA level a mere 12 seconds later. The teams exchanged goals once more before the second intermission, with Kaprizov setting up Alexander Popov before Olympic hero Nikita Gusev tied the game at 3-3.
Kuzmenko grabbed his second of the night with 10 minutes left on the clock, giving the Muscovites a 4-3 lead, and even though Plotnikov swiftly restored parity and took the game to overtime, Kuzmenko claimed his hat-trick goal and the game-winner to seal a famous victory.