Debut triumph for Fyodorov
by Andy Potts|01 MAY 2022
CSKA Moscow’s Sergei Andronov and Nikita Nesterov lift the Gagarin Cup after winning Game 7 of the KHL final series.
photo: Grigori Sysoyev / RIA Novosti
Hockey legend Sergei Fyodorov completed his first season as a head coach by winning the Gagarin Cup in a dramatic final series.

The three-time Stanley Cup winner and IIHF Hall of Famer led CSKA Moscow to a game-seven victory over Metallurg Magnitogorsk despite trailing 1-3 in the final series.

And Red Wings legend Fyodorov answered many of the questions raised when CSKA appointed him in the summer despite his lack of coaching experience.

“Maybe I had some kind of fantasy that I would win the title in my first year as a coach, but it wasn’t a serious expectation,” Fyodorov told KHL TV after his team’s 4-1 victory in game seven. “I knew that it would require enormous work, it would demand titanic commitment from our players.

“I just wanted to work out which combinations we needed, where we had to work to get results. Thanks to our coaching staff, we managed to come up with the right answers. And the guys stuck together, even though we had eight newcomers including the head coach. It’s incredible, I can’t believe it right now!”

CSKA forward Mikhail Grigorenko gave his insight into Fyodorov’s coaching style. “First and foremost, he believes in every player – young and old alike,” Grigorenko said. “He’s very calm and considered, that’s another big plus. Even when were down 1-3, nobody panicked. We all knew that we have a good team. Magnitka won three in a row and we knew that we could do the same.”

“Sergei Fyodorov won three Stanley Cups and a World Championship, he knows what to do in difficult situations,” added Konstantin Okulov. “That helped us in the decisive games.”

Koshechkin’s record not enough for Metallurg

Metallurg was bidding to win its third cup, having defeated Lev Prague in 2014 and CSKA in 2016. After four games, the Eastern Conference champion looked to be in control. Veteran goalie Vasili Koshechkin got hot, blanking CSKA twice in Moscow on his way to a record-breaking shut-out streak of 156:34 – no goalie has resisted for longer in a Gagarin Cup final. 

Magnitka had the chance to wrap it up on home ice in game five, but Okulov finally solved Koshechkin and CSKA snatched an overtime verdict to keep the series alive. Back in Moscow for game six, Grigorenko and Vladislav Kamenev got the goals in a 2-1 success. Then game seven hung on two quick goals midway through the first period. Pavel Karnaukhov and Alexander Popov put CSKA in front, and Metallurg was unable to find a way back. The Muscovites took a 4-1 victory on the day and lifted the cup.

At the age of 39, Koshechkin is the most experienced goalie in the KHL – his long-term rival Alexander Yeryomenko, a two-time Gagarin Cup winner with Dynamo Moscow, announced his retirement at the end of the season. But the Metallurg man’s future is uncertain, according to head coach Ilya Vorobyov.

“It’s not easy for me to speak for him.” Vorobyov said after the final. “There were times when he said this would be his last year. He had injuries, there were times when he did not play for long periods. I think Vasya will take a break now, think it over and see what to do. He’s a grown man, he has his family to think about. It’s his decision.”

As well as Koshechkin’s individual distinction, Metallurg also set a KHL playoff scoring record. The Steelmen finished post season with 80 Goals, bettering the 71 scored by Lev Prague in its silver medal run of 2014. That put Magnitka’s forwards to the top of the play-off scoring chart. Philippe Maillet led the way with 21 (8+13) points, Brendan Leipsic was the top goalscorer with 11.

Popov named MVP

The golden goal in this year’s final went to Alexander Popov. The CSKA forward potted the game-winner in Saturday’s decider, giving his team that early 2-0 lead.

It was latest big goal from the 41-year-old – the oldest player skating in the final – as his experience bound together an effective line featuring the youthful energy of Maxim Sorkin, 22, and Andrei Svetlakov, 26, throughout the play-offs. Popov finished post season with 9 (5+4) points, but his contributions tended to be clutch and that helped persuade the officials to nominate him for the big individual prize.

Even so, Popov admitted that he was surprised to be named MVP, especially after missing games in the final series due to a slight injury. “I don’t quite understand it,” he said after game seven. “I didn’t expect to be MVP. It takes a team to win a cup, everyone did well.”

While the evergreen forward declined to explain the secrets of his longevity, he’s hoping to continue playing: “I’ve proved that it’s too soon for me to go into an admin role,” he said. “Now it’s still too soon. I’ll need to think about what comes next.”

Import exodus

The play-offs were affected by external events. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, Jokerit Helsinki announced that it was withdrawing from the championship. As a result, the Western Conference runner-up forfeited its first-round match-up with Spartak Moscow. Neither Jokerit nor Dinamo Riga have applied to compete in the 2022/23 KHL season, with the league planning to run with 22 teams next term. Jokerit aims to return to Finland’s Liiga in 2023.

In addition, the subsequent severing of airline connections with most of Europe prompted many imports to leave the country rather than stay for the playoffs. For some teams, this was a huge blow: Salavat Yulayev Ufa, for example, lost goalie Juha Metsola, its free-scoring Finnish line of Teemu Hartinkainen, Mikael Granlund and Sakari Manninen, plus Danish defenceman Philip Larsen. Defending champion Avangard Omsk missed key defensive duo Oliwer Kaski and Ville Pokka and a shortage of options on the blue line contributed to the Hawks’ inability to repeat last year’s success.

It may not be coincidence that the two Gagarin Cup finalists were relatively unaffected by departures. Metallurg went without Finnish goalie Juho Olkinuora, but kept its Canadian strike force of Brendan Leipsic, Philippe Maillet and Josh Currie, as well as Swedish defencemen Jonas Hultstrom. CSKA said goodbye to Swedish forwards Joakim Nordstrom and Lucas Wallmark but Klas Dahlbeck, John Gilmour and Darren Dietz remained on defence and understudy goalie Adam Reideborn also completed the season.