Znarok leads SKA to Gagarin Cup

Russia’s head coach wins KHL for third time

17.04.2017
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Магнитогорск  Россия

Pavel Datsyuk (left, sidelined due to injury during the final) and captain Ilya Kovalchuk hoist the Gagarin Cup after SKA St. Petersburg had beaten Metallurg Magnitogorsk in five games. Photo: Alexei Kudenko / RIA Novosti

MAGNITOGORSK – SKA St. Petersburg is this season’s Gagarin Cup champion after wrapping up the KHL’s showcase series with a 5-3 victory in Game 5 at Metallurg Magnitogorsk.

The Army Men powered through post season, dropping just two games in four rounds of playoff action to regain the crown it won for the first time in 2015.

The final series, which pitted together the two most recent Gagarin Cup winners, was expected to be a hard-fought battle. Metallurg, led by the scoring phenomenon that is Sergei Mozyakin, faced a SKA team that had set new records for goals in the regular season. Expectations were high for a goal-feast that would go the full distance, but SKA had other ideas.

Mozyakin’s devastating partnership with Danis Zaripov and Jan Kovar was oddly muted: that powerful Magnitka line scored just two goals in five games in the final series as SKA had the edge throughout. That left Zaripov stranded on the 15 goals he scored in the first three rounds; one more marker would have set a new post-season goalscoring record for the league.

Instead, it was SKA’s troika of Nikita Gusev, Yevgeni Dadonov and Vadim Shipachyov that dominated the final. Shipachyov was the architect of much of the team’s most dangerous plays, Gusev was a constant menace around the net and Dadonov undermined Metallurg with four goals and an assist in the final series.

The forward admitted that this win was a bigger thrill than SKA’s success in 2015, especially after helping his team battle back to win game five.

“I can’t really say how much it means. For me, this is even bigger than when I first won the cup. Back then, I didn’t really know what to expect, but this time I knew and I wanted it even more,” he told championat.com.

“Today, it was tough to be down 0-2, but maybe it eased a bit of the tension around us and we calmed down.”

Despite SKA’s powerful progress to the cup, captain Ilya Kovalchuk was quick to dismiss suggestions that his team had it easy. “All the series were really tough, including the first one against Vityaz,” he told KHL.ru. “Maybe it looked easy, but the opening game was anything but. Lokomotiv fought hard, Dynamo was the same, then we faced Magnitogorsk, the defending champion and a team that had won twice in three years.”

While SKA became the fourth team to claim a second Gagarin Cup crown, head coach Oleg Znarok and his assistant Harijs Vitolins won the trophy for the third time – a KHL record. Vitolins, who continued as head coach at Dynamo Moscow after Znarok left to take over Team Russia, was reunited with his old colleague in the KHL this season and talked about the differences between victory in Russia’s two biggest cities.

“It’s our first year at SKA so we had to get used to this team and it’s very hard to do that quickly,” he told KHL.ru. “We gathered a skilful roster, but we had to get them playing our game, understanding what we required. It took a lot of work. And, of course, there was pressure – SKA is a club with a big reputation.”

For Metallurg, foiled in its bid to become the first team to win three Gagarin Cups, there was disappointment – and a sense that the series was closer than the scoreline suggested. Oskar Osala, who was denied a late equalizer on Sunday by a combination of Mikko Koskinen’s pad and the inside of the post, told KHL.ru: “It’s hard to pick out any one decisive moment in this series. Every game was tough. It was right at the end of each game that the outcome was decided.” Zaripov spoke up for his team-mates, insisting: “We can all look each other in the eye and thank each other for a good season.”

ANDY POTTS

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