MOSCOW – Alexei Tsvetkov fired Dynamo Moscow to Gagarin Cup victory over Traktor Chelyabinsk on Wednesday, completing the final step on a road to glory which began back in 2008.
That was the season he first teamed up with head coach Olegs Znaroks at MVD Balashikha. The following season he was part of the Balashikha boys who took mighty Ak Bars Kazan all the way before succumbing in a seven-game final series. Then after two seasons at Severstal Cherepovets he rejoined Znaroks at the start of this season to be part of Dynamo’s defence of the Gagarin Cup.
And what a part! In the sixth minute of overtime, seconds after Traktor’s Yevgeni Kuznetsov had gone close to winning the game and tying the series, Denis Kokarev fired in a shot from the right-hand circle. Goalie Michael Garnett blocked it – just – but as he lay sprawled across the crease the puck dropped for Tsvetkov to fire his fifth post-season goal. That made it 3-2, and the cup was Dynamo’s once more.
As a veteran of the Znaroks team ethos, Tsvetkov revealed that there was no tactical masterclass during that third interval at Arena Traktor. “He simply told us to play the game properly. I think these guys are imbued with so much team spirit that we knew victory would come. We just know how to play in a final, and how to win it. In sport, the strongest take away the prizes.”
However, in the delirious aftermath of his winner, Tsvetkov admitted that the occasion hadn’t really sunk in. “I haven’t quite realized that we are champions. I don’t quite understand how I’m feeling!”
He wasn’t the only player to emerge from Balashikha and find himself turning into a play-off star. Following the merger between Dynamo and MVD, the Moscow Region town is now home to Dynamo’s VHL farm team, and until the middle of February that’s where Alexei Sopin was playing his hockey – firmly in the middle of Russia’s second tier. Now he’s a Gagarin Cup winner, with some memorable and important goals against Slovan Bratislava and CSKA Moscow on his CV.
“It’s like a dream – I could never have imagined winning the Gagarin Cup,” Sopin told R-Sport. “In February I was still playing in Balashikha, and now I’m part of the best team in the country and I’ve won a champions medal.”
For the second season running, goalie Alexander Yeryomenko was named MVP for the KHL play-offs. He posted the best goal average – 1.74 – and had a 93.8% save percentage and three shutouts in Dynamo’s 21 games. His importance was clear once again in Chelyabinsk in game six, where just seconds before Tsvetkov’s winner he stood tall in the crease to face down a solo breakaway from Yevgeni Kuznetsov, winning his second duel with the youngster in that game and denying Traktor the chance to tie the series. But, modestly, the goalie shrugged off the recognition after the game.
“We played at the limit, both physically and psychologically. This is a shared victory for everyone at the club,” he insisted. “As for ‘most valuable’, it’s better to praise the whole club, everyone who helped and supported us.”
Znaroks himself, exhausted by the emotions of a second successive triumph – and this one in his home town, against the club where he played at the start of his career – barely managed a sip of the celebratory champagne back in the locker room.
“This year it was much harder to win the cup,” he commented after matching Zinetula Bilyaletdinov’s achievement of 2009-2010.
And perhaps he was right. Unlike last season, where Dynamo went into its early play-off games as clear favourites to overpower the likes of Dinamo Minsk and Torpedo Nizhni Novgorod, this season’s schedule threw up an awkward clash with league newcomer Slovan Bratislava and a Moscow derby against CSKA before renewing hostilities with a SKA St. Petersburg side which seemed to be in supreme form under the guidance of Jukka Jalonen.
Moreover, as assistant coach Harijs Vitolins admitted after the final, several Dynamo players were carrying injuries during the play-off campaign. Sergei Konkov, Alexei Sopin, Ilya Gorokhov and Sergei Soin all went onto the ice with minor fractures, he said, while most of their team-mates suffered heavy bruising from a grueling campaign.
“The guys gave everything. There is nobody who finished the season without getting hurt,” Vitolins told R-Sport.
However, Traktor faced troubles of its own on its way to the final. To start with, preparations were disrupted by the meteorite which landed near the Southern Ural city in late February – casting a doubt over whether its opening play-off games with Barys Astana could go ahead as planned on home ice.
The arena’s safety was confirmed, only for the Kazakhs to send another bolt from the blue by winning the first two games. Traktor recovered to take the series in seven, and repeated the trick in the Eastern Conference final against Ak Bars Kazakn after trailing 2-0 and 3-1. In between goalie Garnett produced a heroic display to record four shut-outs in five games as last season’s runner-up Avangard was dispatched in round two.
Those meetings with Avangard also saw 18-year-old Valeri Nichushkin make a name for himself with some audacious puck-handling and great individual goals.
But come the final series, the almost traditional two-game deficit was too much to claw back. A thrilling 4-3 win in Moscow on Monday denied Dynamo victory in five games, and a third-period equalizer from Petri Kontiola in game six took the Moscow men to overtime before they clinched a 4-2 series win.
Defeat was tempered with pride at the way Valeri Belousov transformed a struggling team into a serious contender for top honours. Kontiola himself noted that the club had enjoyed two successful seasons in a row, reaching its first play-off in the KHL era after winning the regular championship last year, then following up with a run to the final this time around. And the future is set to reaffirm Chelyabinsk’s reputation as Russia’s leading hockey production line, according to club president Mikhail Yurevich.
“I can already say for certain that the emphasis will once again be on the graduates of Chelyabinsk’s hockey academies,” he said. “This season we’ve seen the likes of Nichushkin, [Maxim] Karpov, [Nikita] Nesterov and a few others begin their careers with Traktor. We have more talented youngsters and next season Traktor will introduce you to a number of new young players.”
Meanwhile, Nichushkin himself has little time to reflect on his first season in the adult game. As a key member of Russia’s U18 World Championship squad, he was given special dispensation to stay with Traktor after the April 11 call-up date for the tournament just starting in Sochi. But now he heads directly to the Black Sea with the task of delivering gold for his country after settling for silver with his club. Following Wednesday’s game he asked journalists not to interview him, saying that he needed to go home and sleep before preparing for international duty.