In a tight final series, one moment decided the outcome of the 10th season of KHL action. Early in the third period, with Ak Bars Kazan on a power play, Rob Klinkhammer got to the CSKA net in front of his Canadian Olympic teammate Mat Robinson and jammed his stick down in front of Anton Lander’s feed from the right. It was enough to deflect the puck past Lars Johansson and give Ak Bars a 1-0 victory on the night and a 4-1 success in the series.
The Gagarin Cup was back in Tatarstan for a record third time and it was the fourth Russian championship for Ak Bars since its first in 2006.
A 4-1 series score might sound one-sided, but this was a hard battle. CSKA, hot favourite coming into the final, ran Ak Bars close in every game. However, the Eastern Conference champion was rock-solid on defence, and goalie Emil Garipov – 33 saves for that shutout in Sunday’s decisive game – was in fine form. The Muscovites, still seeking a first Gagarin Cup triumph, were steadily strangled; Olympic hero Kirill Kaprizov, who missed the opening game through injury, could not find a single point in the face of a resolute rearguard; CSKA was limited to just six goals in five games and failed on eight power play chances in the last two games of the series.
Garipov was the key man. The Kazan-born goalie, now 26, has faced criticism in the past for failing to deliver at the highest level. Not here. An SVG of 94.4% and a GAA of 1.55 was a huge part of Ak Bars’ triumph. And, as a one-club man, victory was all the sweeter on home ice.
“I didn’t have to prove anything to anyone, I just wanted to win the cup with my home team,” he said after the game. “I’ve always dreamed of winning the cup with Ak Bars, and we’ve done it. I’m a Tatar. I was born in Kazan and I’ve always lived here, and now I’ve won the cup here.”
The other key player for Ak Bars throughout post season was Justin Azevedo. The Canadian forward might have been a big part of his country’s Olympic plans had injury not disrupted his regular season form. In the playoffs, though, he was unstoppable. With 24 (9+15) points he led his team’s scoring and became the first KHL import to be named MVP. After twice losing in Gagarin Cup finals, with Lev Prague in 2014 and Ak Bars a year later, he was relieved to get his name on the trophy at last.
“Three really is the magic number,” the Canadian said. “We all deserve this victory, our team was united and did everything to win. I’m proud of this team. Winning the MVP is nice, but the cup is by far the most important. The MVP is just the cherry on top.”
For Garipov and Azevedo it was a first Gagarin Cup victory; for Danis Zaripov, it was his fifth. The forward was part of the Ak Bars roster in the first two seasons of the KHL when it won back-to-back titles, then he picked up two further trophies with Metallurg Magnitogorsk in 2014 and 2016. This season he made it five wins in 10 seasons of KHL action, a phenomenal strike rate. And yet, in the summer it was doubtful whether Zaripov would play at all this season after he was hit with a doping ban. That penalty was reduced on appeal with more evidence brought up from the player’s side, enabling the Chelyabinsk-born 37-year-old to return to the game – and he did so in style. His playoff form was at its peak in round two, when Ak Bars swept Metallurg, and he also chimed in with a couple of assists in the final.
“The feeling is the same after every victory – it’s the best feeling in the world. You can’t compare it to anything else. Every season, we start by trying to win it all. And, once again, that’s what we’ve done,” he told championat.com.
“It was a very unpleasant situation for me at the start of the season. It’s a relief that we could get out of that, win justice and finish the season on a successful note. Thanks to everyone who believed in me.”
For Zinetula Bilyaletdinov, this third Gagarin Cup victory, eight years after the previous one, was a testament to teamwork. “I can’t pick out individuals,” he said. “I would highlight our whole team. Of course, everyone played to his level but they all came together to complete one task. It was a great effort, I can’t criticize anybody. Every player worked honestly, some scored, others defended but the whole team worked as one. They’re great guys, and I’m thrilled for them.”
While Ak Bars got the championship party started, CSKA was left to contemplate defeat. The Army Men now have the unwanted record of being the only team to lose in two Gagarin Cup finals and the club’s wait for a first title since the break-up of the USSR goes on.
Captain Sergei Andronov was frustrated by the lack of a cutting edge in front of the net. “What can I say? It’s really disappointing how it all turned out,” he said. “Unfortunately, we need to face the truth and understand that we lost the final because we didn’t do the right things. We tried to play on the front foot, we weren’t interested in playing defensively, but we failed to take our chances. It’s impossible to win if you don’t score goals.”
Fellow forward Andrei Kuzmenko was also left cursing his team’s inability to come to terms with the Ak Bars defence: “We need to take a little time to understand this season and work out whether we did well or badly. Our game was decent, but we couldn’t win the Gagarin Cup. Ak Bars had a stronger defence. We’ve seen this for so many years, since Bilyaletdinov first introduced those tactics, and year after year they do the same things.
“If you take a moment, it’s clear that in every game we made costly mistakes. Ak Bars punished us for that. They have an experienced team and I think that played a part. We couldn’t capitalize on their mistakes.”