OMSK, Russia – A single goal from Jakub Klepis, barely eight minutes from the end of game seven of the Gagarin Cup final, proved enough to give Dynamo Moscow the championship – and complete a remarkable recovery to defy the pundits and claim the KHL’s biggest honour.
Few believed the Moscow team could lift its first domestic title since 2005 after back-to-back home defeats put Avangard Omsk 3-1 ahead and seemingly in total control of the final series. But after Alexander Perezhogin’s overtime strike – his third game-winner in the opening four games – saw the Siberian side leave Luzhniki with the title almost within its grasp, Dynamo head coach Olegs Znaroks vowed that the hard work was only just starting.
And so it proved: while the fans flocked to Omsk expecting to see a coronation, the visitors raced into a 3-0 lead inside 25 minutes, and held on to claim a 3-2 triumph. Back in Moscow for game six, Dynamo opened the scoring on 53 seconds and went on to win 5-2 – the only game to end with more than one goal between the teams.
Then in the series decider in Omsk, goaltender Alexander Yeremenko, who spent the whole of Salavat Yulayev Ufa’s triumph last season watching from the bench, underlined his MVP status with a determined shut-out while Klepis, a former Avangard player, scored the only goal on Karri Rämö.
Marek Kvapil picked out his compatriot unattended on the slot, and while Rämö could block the first effort, Klepis reacted smartly to lift the puck over the sprawling goalie and win the game.
Yeremenko told reporters after the game that it was destiny which brought him to Dynamo to lift the Gagarin Cup after last season’s bittersweet finale.
“It’s important for players to play hockey and I thank the fates that brought me to Dynamo to win the cup,” he told Sports.ru
. “At Salavat Yulayev I was third choice and last year I didn’t even touch the trophy [after Erik Ersberg played every minute for the play-off winning side]. Apparently destiny knew what was in store for me.”
With national coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov putting the finishing touches to his squad for next month’s World Championship, Yeremenko was keen to remind the national squad that he is eager to add to his two gold medals from 2008 and 2009. “Of course I’ve proved what I can do, but that’s already history,” he added. “Now I have to go out and prove it again.”
Yeremenko also paid tribute to the Lokomotiv players and coaching staff, killed in a plane crash on the opening day of the season. "I'd like to dedicate this win to the guys on the Lokomotiv team who are no longer with us," he told R-Sport
. "I'm sure everyone on our team would agree with me. It's been tough for everyone throughout the season, coming to terms with it. We've all had to quietly step around it and play. We'll always remember those guys."We won because we were better
Znaroks, who two years earlier tasted the despair of losing a grand final decider after leading in the series, said that this season’s final had left him drained.
“I’m almost without emotion,” the former Latvian national team coach told Sportbox.ru
. “It’s a kind of emptiness and fatigue. I want to thank the players for the trust and character they showed right through the play-offs. It was all very difficult and tense but we went step by step to our success and I’m happy that everything ended well.
“Even when it was 1-3 [in the final series] I had no doubts about these guys and I was confident we could still do it. That’s why I said it was only just starting, and I was right. We won because we were the better team. There’s no other way to succeed in sport.”Disappointment
For Avangard, defeat was hard to take – and forward Anton Kuryanov was left to hint that all may not have been well in the locker room during the decisive games.
“Probably we lacked a bit of experience and quality,” he told Sovietski Sport
. “Maybe Dynamo had a bit more desire, a bit more organisation - not just on the ice but also outside the locker room. That was the decisive detail. Sometimes we saw some crazy things which cannot happen in the final.”
Kuryanov would not be drawn on the details, saying it was a matter for the club's directors, but paid tribute to the fans who travelled from all over Russia to support Avangard in the final. “Without their support we would not have reached the finals, but unfortunately we still lost.”The outsiders
Few had given Dynamo much hope of winning its first trophy of the KHL era. Big-spending SKA St. Petersburg, under the guidance of wily Milos Riha, was widely expected to ease to the Western Conference title.
But in the conference final the capital club produced an amazing fightback from 0-3 to win the opening game in overtime, while the hosts raged as the video official ruled out what would have been the winning goal.
From that point on, it was one-way traffic. Dynamo swept SKA 4-0 to set up a showdown with an Avangard roster which had already seen off the dangerous regular-season champ Traktor Chelyabinsk, home of Russia’s brightest emerging star Yevgeni Kuznetsov.
A final series of highly technical, will-drilled hockey was expected – and both sides lived up to that billing. Despite the attacking talents of Roman Cervenka (11+11=22 points for Avangard) and Mikhail Anisin (a record-breaking 14 play-off goals for Dynamo), goals were at a premium, with two games finishing 1-0 and Avangard unable to score more than two on Dynamo in any game.
And rather than Cervenka and Anisin, it was Perezhogin, who was the key man in the first games, scoring 4+1=5 in the first four games, with three of his goals proving decisive.
But the loss of defenceman Anton Belov, who failed a routine post-game drug test after game five, turned out to be crucial: his replacement Yuri Alexandrov was caught out in the first minute of game six and for the first time fans saw a team produce a devastating attacking display in a 5-2 Dynamo win in Moscow to set up the winner-takes-all showdown in Omsk.
And the series left league president Alexander Medvedev hailing the best contest in the KHL’s short history. He hailed the "heroic" fightback of Znaroks’ team after Dynamo’s success. “Znaroks’ players are strong in spirit, and they battled for victory from the first minute to the last,” he said. “In this team every player is a real star. I think Dynamo deserved the win and we have witnessed the most brilliant final in the four-year history of the league.”
ANDY POTTSDynamo Moscow captain Yuri Babenko and Alexei Kudashov hold the Gagarin Cup. Photo: Alexei Filippov / RIA Novosti