CSKA Moscow 3 Avangard Omsk 0 (0-0, 0-0, 3-0)

(CSKA leads the series 2-0)

CSKA stepped up the gas in the closing minutes of the third period to shatter Avangard’s resistance and take a 2-0 lead in the Gagarin Cup final. Although the visitor had the better of the game for long periods, once the Army Men started turning the screws in the last 10 minutes or so, Avangard had no answer. Konstantin Okulov broke the deadlock in the 54th minute before two empty net goals put the outcome beyond reach. Before that, goalie Ilya Sorokin was in imperious form once again, securing his fourth shut-out of the playoffs with 27 saves.

Photo: 15.04.19. KHL Championship 2018-2019. Playoffs. Final. CSKA (Moscow) - Avangard (Omsk)

CSKA now enjoys a 2-0 lead in the series – in 10 previous KHL seasons, five teams have won the first two games of the final and all of them went on to lift the cup. Moreover, nine of the 10 teams that won the second game of the series finished the season as champions. Forget the ‘curse’ that has prevented a regular season champion from doubling up with playoff glory: here are some serious statistical arguments to favor CSKA in this series.

The manner of victory was also impressive. Aware that Avangard would emerge eager to recover from Saturday’s 2-5 loss in the opening game, CSKA was ready to play a sensible game. Instead of chasing the opposition and looking to go shot-for-shot with its rival, Ilya Nikitin’s team focussed on taking the sting out of Avangard’s offense and waiting for chances to come. For two periods, Bob Hartley’s players enjoyed a noticeable, if never overwhelming, advantage on the balance of play but CSKA raised its game at the perfect time to snatch victory in the closing moments.

The first clear signs of a change in direction emerged around the 50-minute mark. Kirill Kaprizov, notionally demoted to the fourth line but enjoying more than 15 minutes of ice time, led a compelling shift. First, his shot from out wide fizzed across the slot; Ivan Telegin came close to turning in the rebound as Avangard’s defense looked nervous. Kaprizov & Co. continued to carve out clear chances, only to find Igor Bobkov at his best in the visitor’s net.

But Bobkov was undone, cruelly, by Okulov. Avangard yielded possession rather cheaply in center ice and Maxim Shalunov advanced down the left channel before feeding Okulov in a central position. The shot rode up the outstretched stick of an Omsk defenseman to rebound off the crossbar into Bobkov’s back; unsighted, the goalie spun round in time to watch it bounce into the net to give CSKA the lead and, ultimately, the game.

The night got better for the home fans. Mikhail Grigorenko scored an empty net goal on 58:22, moving him to 12 for the playoffs and putting him out in front in the goalscoring race. He also goes to 20 points, one behind Salavat Yulaev’s Teemu Hartikainen. With 90 seconds still to play, Avangard again gambled on withdrawing Bobkov and again was caught out. Captain Sergei Andronov, restored to the team after missing out on Saturday, fired home a third from the red line as the Army Men marched to another impressive win.

That late flurry of goals was somewhat out of keeping with the rest of the game – especially given that Avangard had looked the more likely scorer in the first two periods. After 40 minutes, the visitor enjoyed a 20-9 advantage on the shot count. However, impressive as that looked, the detail told another story. The most persistent shooter was defenseman Alexei Emelin; fellow blue liner Cody Franson was tied as second most frequent. While the Hawks clearly weren’t shy of letting fly, CSKA’s defense was doing a good job of keeping the visitor to the outside and inhibiting the impact of the team’s key scorers such as Sergei Shumakov and Taylor Beck. Plus, of course, Sorokin was on his game and, as these playoffs have demonstrated before, an on-form Sorokin can prove a formidable obstacle for the most powerful of offenses.

Other details also suggested that CSKA was in this game more than shots alone might suggest. The teams spent roughly equal amounts of time on the attack and the home team had arguably the clearest chance of the middle frame. That arrived early in the session when Andrei Svetlakov and Ivan Telegin engineered an odd man rush. Svetlakov presented his strike partner with an open net to shoot at but somehow the center managed to put the puck wide.

In the event, it transpired that CSKA’s attack was better able to find its cutting edge – and in the closing stages that made the difference in this game. Avangard needs to rediscover its own scoring power quickly if it is to find a way back into this series when the action moves to Balashikha on Wednesday.

Bob Hartley, head coach, Avangard

Of course that’s a tough loss to take. I think we played great today. Overall, both teams played some good, fast hockey. For the first two periods, maybe, we even looked the better team. But in the third CSKA put us under pressure and got that goal.

After the first game we made some fundamental changes to our gameplan and the guys bought into that. CSKA will never let us create the number of scoring chances we would like but we’re not looking for excuses. We lost the game, we go to Balashikha and we keep working. It’s all in our hands still.

What did you do to counter the CSKA forecheck?

We made a few adjustments and I thought they had a positive effect.

Igor Nikitin, head coach, CSKA

It was a tough game. We had to wait for a chance but we were able to take it when it came.

Did you think it was an interesting game?

Next question.

What’s the situation with Sergei Kalinin, who left the game in the second period with a hand injury?

Right now it’s too early to say. We need to look at it properly. But that’s part of the game.

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