Avangard Omsk 2 CSKA Moscow 3 OT (2-0, 0-1, 0-1, 0-1)

(CSKA wins the Gagarin Cup Final 4-0)

The curse is lifted. CSKA Moscow became the first team in KHL history to top the table in the regular season and go on to win the Gagarin Cup. The Army Men collected their first ever Gagarin Cup and lifted Russia’s top hockey prize for the first time since the fall of the USSR. Along the way, Igor Nikitin’s team also recorded the first ever grand final sweep after clawing back a 0-2 deficit to win game four in overtime.

Photo: 19.04.19. KHL Championship 2018-2019. Playoffs. Final. Avangard (Omsk) - CSKA (Moscow)

For Avangard, this proved to be a series too far. After looking so impressive in moving through the Eastern Conference post season, Bob Hartley’s team hit a brick wall in the form of CSKA. Four goals in four games, three of them on the power play, told the tale. Ilya Sorokin was magnificent in goal for the champion, Avangard’s forwards could not find a way past the 23-year-old.

But CSKA also had to show plenty of character, and none more so than in Friday’s decisive game. Down 0-2 at the first intermission, the team kept believing and forced overtime on a late Konstantin Okulov goal. In the extras, there was more pressure on Sorokin’s net and an effort against his post before Maxim Mamin got the decisive goal in the 78th minute. The forward, recalled to the team for today’s game after being a healthy scratch on Wednesday, wrote his name in the history books when he got in front of Igor Bobkov to redirect a Mat Robinson point shot and send the Red-and-Blue half of Moscow into raptures. It was the second time Avangard had seen a Moscow team win the cup in its building: in 2012 Dynamo took the prize thanks to a Jakub Klepis goal in game seven of that final.

But for so long, it seemed that this would be the day that Avangard found a way to win against CSKA. Two losses in regular season, three in the playoffs: the Hawks were in the last-chance saloon. Hartley’s instructions were clear – get forward, get pucks to the net and find a way to solve Ilya Sorokin. The response was all the coach could have asked for. Avangard pressed from the first face-off. All the key indicators showed a team determined to leave it all out there in a hard-hitting performance – and the rewards came as the Hawks lifted off for a 2-0 lead.

One of the sub-plots of this series has revolved around Sergei Shumakov. The former CSKA man was Avangard’s leading goalscorer through the playoffs but failed to score in the opening three games against his former club. That came to an end in the 13th minute of game four when he put his team in front for the first time in the grand final.

Like Avangard’s previous two markers in the series, it came on the power play. Cody Franson’s point shot deflected through traffic and left the stickless Sorokin helpless to prevent Shumakov from tapping the puck into a wide open net. However, there was still an anxious moment to come as the video review sought to confirm any goalie interference on the part of David Desharnais. Avangard had seen two big goals whistled off in the previous two games but after a tense wait for the home crowd in Balashikha the ref pointed to the center.

The home team got another lift moments later when Anton Slepyshev was ejected from the game for kicking at Alexei Emelin as CSKA got a 2-on-1 rush. But that chance was cancelled out when Shumakov took two minutes for diving under the challenge of Mikhail Naumenkov. Four-on-four hockey suited Avangard just fine: Franson doubled the lead with a smart shot from the boards after Taylor Beck made a move from the blue line to open up a shooting lane and stretch Sorokin.

But CSKA hadn’t got to a 3-0 lead without knowing how to pose some serious questions at the other end. The Army Men responded in the second period and quickly raised its game. Konstantin Okulov thought he’d scored on the wraparound when he got the puck past Bobkov, only for the goalie to recover and scoop the puck off the goal line. That reprieve was brief, though. From the face-off, Ivan Telegin won the draw and Kirill Kaprizov wired a wrister from the top of the circle to halve the deficit.

Then it was anyone’s game. Chances came and went at both ends, Sorokin and Bobkov were called into action to deny both sets of forwards. In the third period, CSKA raised the tempo of its offense at last and took the game to Avangard. But the home team dug in: after 60 minutes, it had 17 hits against three from CSKA, 19 blocked shots against 10. The sight of Yemelin returning a couple of shifts after taking a slap shot to the face typified the resilience with which Omsk was defending its lead.

Still, though, chances came. Kaprizov spurned an opening that looked easier than his goal; Alexander Popov looked for a pass across the crease to Okulov when a shot seemed the better option. Time was ticking down and Avangard was close to securing the win that would extend this series.

Then came the big twist. Okulov tied the scores with less than three minutes to go, breaking Avangard hearts and forcing the action into overtime for the first time in this final series. Popov took the puck around the back and got the break when a home defenseman fell. With time to prepare a shooting chance, Popov dropped off the puck for Okulov who used Yemelin as a screen before placing a perfect shot just below Bobkov’s blocker and in off the far post.

Bobkov shrugged off that disappointment to make a huge save in the dying seconds. Maxim Shalunov was all alone in front of the net and had two swings at it to win the cup for CSKA. But Bobkov came up big to close the door and prolong Avangard’s season – at least into the extras.

In that overtime, Beck came close to winning it for Avangard when he hit the post during a power play. The puck clipped the piping and even took a deflection off Sorokin’s back but would not cross the line. CSKA killed the penalty and, just moments later, celebrated victory thanks to Mamin’s game-winning goal.

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