First, no team had previously won the KHL’s regular season championship and followed it up with play-off glory. CSKA itself had missed out three times in the past after leading the pack into post season. Second, no team had won a Gagarin Cup Final in four games. CSKA had lost in five last season, with Ak Bars Kazan joining Salavat Yulayev Ufa and SKA St. Petersburg on the list of champions who dropped just one game in the final. Third, no team has won as many games as CSKA this season. In the regular season, Igor Nikitin’s men won 53 out of 62 games. In the play-offs, a further 16 wins came in just 20 games.
The decisive game was one of the toughest. CSKA had to come from 0-2 down to force overtime before Maxim Mamin settled the outcome in the 78th minute. Mamin knocked down a Mat Robinson point shot, deceiving Omsk goalie Igor Bobkov and sparking the celebrations in Balashikha, Avangard’s temporary home next to Moscow due to safety issues with its home arena. In regulation, Kirill Kaprizov potted his first goal of the finals to get CSKA back into the game in the second period before Konstantin Okulov tied the game with less than three minutes to play.
For CSKA captain Sergei Andronov, twice a beaten finalist with the club, Friday’s win was the culmination of years of effort.
“It’s just unreal,” he told KHL.ru. “We’ve been on such a long journey to get here. Maybe it was even worth losing two Gagarin Cup finals so we could really understand what it means to win. All that contributed to our victory today. There’s been so much work over those years, it’s been a huge part of my life and now I’m so happy. I’m proud of all our guys.”
Avangard came up short in the grand final but that shouldn’t detract from an impressive debut season for head coach Bob Hartley. The Hawkesbury, Ontario native took on the challenge in Omsk in the summer, having spent the two previous seasons in charge of Team Latvia. He was immediately plunged into difficult circumstances when Arena Omsk was found to be unsafe to stage hockey games and Avangard was forced to relocate. After assessing its options, the club moved to Balashikha, a small town near Moscow, some 2,200 miles away from its heartland in Western Siberia. Despite the obvious logistical challenges, the team was competitive throughout regular season and gained a real fillip with the mid-season signings of forward Sergei Shumakov (following a brief spell in the Capitals’ organization) and Taylor Beck (acquired from Kunlun Red Star in the KHL).
Fourth in the Eastern Conference, Avangard began the play-offs with a stunning sweep of defending champion Ak Bars Kazan. Then came a 4-1 win over Barys Astana in the conference semi-final before victory over Salavat Yulayev Ufa in six games in the Conference final. The team’s high-tempo, pressing hockey dominated the East but could not find a way to ruffle CSKA’s dominant defence in the Gagarin Cup Final. Avangard was shut out twice and managed just four goals in four games, three of them on the power play. Shumakov and Beck contributed just one goal between them as the club’s hopes of a first Gagarin Cup win were slowly suffocated by the Army Men.
There was controversy along the way. In game one, with CSKA up 2-0, Andrei Stas had a goal whistled off after a shot deflected off his leg and into the net. In game three, Denis Zernov believed he had opened the scoring, but again a video review ruled that the goal was scored with the skate. When Shumakov put the puck in the net for the first goal of game four, there was an anxious wait as the CSKA bench challenged the play. This time, though, the goal was good and Avangard had its first lead of the series. Cody Franson, the most productive defenceman of the play-offs, doubled that advantage but it wasn’t enough to extend the season.
Team captain Yevgeni Medvedev summed up his year: “This team is like a family. I’ve only got good things to say about this season. Of course it’s a pity that we lost in the final, that leaves a bitter taste. But, all the same, we’re grateful to the fans in Omsk and in Balashikha, to everyone who backed us. We need to learn from this, there’s no better teacher than experience. We need to keep working, everything is in our hands.
“I don’t think we expected to get this far. We had a new team, new coaching, new management, even a new home arena. Nobody could have predicted that we would play like this. I’m proud of everyone who was a part of this success.”
The individual honours were dominated by CSKA players. Goalie Ilya Sorokin was named MVP after becoming the first goalie to record two shut-outs in a Gagarin Cup final. In 20 play-off games he had a KHL record five shut-outs and allowed 24 goals, finishing with an SV% of 94.7 and a GAA of 1.19. The 23-year-old, the fourth goalie in 11 seasons to take the award, modestly insisted that it was a prize for everyone.
“Every one of our players is an MVP,” he told championat.com. “We couldn’t have done this if we didn’t have all these guys. I’d like to say a huge thank you to all the guys for their fantastic work. Nobody could have imagined that we could finish the final in four games. You look at all the games, every time it was on a knife-edge and could have gone either way. But it turned out that this was our time.”
Mikhail Grigorenko was the leading goalscorer with 13, one ahead of Shumakov. He also got a play-off record five empty net goals along the way. Salavat Yulayev’s Teemu Hartikainen tied Grigorenko on 21 points for a share of the leading scorer nomination, with Avangard’s Taylor Beck one point back on 20 (4+16).