MAGNITOGORSK, Russia – Iron Mike Keenan is the toast of Russia’s Steel City after leading Metallurg Magnitogorsk to its first ever Gagarin Cup triumph. The Canadian coach followed up his 1994 Stanley Cup win with a KHL success 20 years later, bringing Magnitka its fourth championship in total and its first in the KHL era.
Inspired by the irrepressible form of star forward Sergei Mozyakin – who set six KHL scoring records and an all-time Russian and Soviet points haul – Metallurg edged Lev Prague 4-3 in a thrilling final series, sealing success on Wednesday with a 7-4 win on home ice.
And Keenan, enjoying a glorious end to his first season in Russia, was caught on camera joining a raucous locker-room singalong of the popular Grigori Leps song classic ‘Ryumka vodki na stole’ (A glass of vodka on the table).
The evidence of that clip suggests that Keenan and his team are better off contributing to sporting records instead of musical ones: the 44 goals shared by the teams was a new high, as was the 11 goals traded in that decider. Mozyakin’s haul of 13+20=33 in post season was 11 points ahead of the previous best by Lokomotiv’s Josef Vasicek. Then there was the biggest ever KHL crowd, 17,073 at Prague’s O2 Arena for Game Four, and the small matter of Lev becoming the first non-Russian team to contest the grand final while Keenan became the first foreign coach to hoist the Gagarin Cup and the first North American to win a major trophy with a Russian team.
Both Keenan and Mozyakin delivered firm ripostes to those who had suggested that the game had evolved and left them behind. Keenan’s strict management style had seen him labelled as a dinosaur when he left the NHL last summer, while many attributed Mozyakin’s absence from Russia’s international roster as a sign that he was an old-fashioned forward ill-suited to the demands of contemporary hockey. But the stats suggest otherwise. Mozyakin posted 106 points this season, an all-time Soviet, Russian and KHL record; Keenan led Magnitka to the top of the Eastern conference before powering through the play-offs in some style to become the first man to win the top prize in North American and Russian hockey.
Mozyakin, meanwhile, admitted that his Olympic omission had spurred him on to a new level during the closing stages of the season. Responding to a comment from Russia’s ex-coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov, who notoriously claimed that the KHL’s leading scorer ‘wouldn’t get near the goal’ at the Games, he told Sovietski Sport: “If I kept on thinking about what he said, I wouldn’t have got any goals. I understand that he’s human, that he spoke without thinking. But I’m not going to be modest: I wanted to come out and proved to everyone what sort of a player I am.”
Mozyakin’s goals shaped a series that was a cat-and-mouse affair, with neither team able to establish a two-game cushion at any stage. Lev opened up with a shock 3-0 win in Magnitogorsk, silencing the fearsome Mozyakin-Kovar-Zaripov line and serving notice that this series was to be no procession. Immediately Magnitka responded with a 4-1 win in game two, and as the action switched to Prague the pattern repeated. Metallurg’s overtime win on home ice, inevitably delivered by two Mozyakin goals, gave the Russian team the chance to wrap it up in game six, and for much of the third period it looked as though Francis Pare had done just that. With little more than two minutes left, though, Mikko Maenpaa tied it up at 4-4 and Nathan Oystrick won it in overtime for the Czechs, taking Keenan into the third grand final decider of his career.
That game, too, was in the balance until late in the second period. Then two goals in 40 seconds, from Yaroslav Kosov and Jan Kovar put Magnitka in control with a 4-2 lead. Mozyakin underlined his MVP status with his 106th point of the season to make it 5-2 off a Danis Zaripov pass, and Zaripov added a goal of his own to a hat trick of assists to stretch the advantage to 6-2. Fittingly that put all three of Metallurg’s front line on the scoresheet once again, reflecting that troika’s utter dominance of KHL defences throughout the season. Lev struck back to close the gap to 6-4 before Mikhail Yunkov’s empty netter sparked delirious celebrations in the Urals.
Keenan reflected on the 20-year gap between his two great triumphs, telling Sport-Express: “It’s always an unforgettable feeling when you win. But it’s important to appreciate the people working with you, the players you are coaching. I’m thrilled for them.” After lifting the top prize in his first season in Russia, Keenan promptly set his team the task of repeating that triumph.
Goalie Vasili Koshechkin celebrated a ‘real festival’ for the fans after that 11-goal decider while Zaripov praised Lev’s resilience, adding: “We had a great season, and to win the cup in front of our own fans is a fantastic finale.”
But the individual feats in the grand final weren’t all about Magnitka and Mozyakin. Lev forward Justin Azevedo, a Canadian whose roots lie in the unfamiliar hockey ground of Portugal, left his own mark on the series with a goal in every game. He finished with eight in total for the series, completing his personal milestone deep into the third as Lev chased the game.
However, he admitted that this feat was no consolation for failing to win the trophy. “It’s cool, but it doesn’t really make up for losing,” he told R-Sport. “You always want to win, and I’m very upset, but even so we’ve had great results this season and I’m proud of my team.”
And despite the disappointment of falling at the final hurdle, Lev defenceman Ondrej Nemec was also proud of what his team had achieved during the season. “Even when we were down 2-6 we still kept trying, and I was happy about that,” he told Lev’s official site after the final game. “For most of us it was the first, and possibly last, KHL final and of course we all wanted to lift the cup. It hurts when you lose the last game of the season but I am very proud that I could be a part of this team.
“[Head coach] Kari Jalonen came in and set some rules that worked for us. We got to the play-offs and played some great hockey, with the whole of the Czech Republic behind us. In our last games at the O2 Arena the atmosphere was unreal.”