Snow leopards into space

Ak Bars wins inaugural KHL season after seven-game final

13.04.2009
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Danis Zaripov (L) and captain Alexei Morozov (R) were to first to hoist the Gagarin Cup. Photo: Vadim Kitaev

KAZAN, Russia – He has scored over 300 goals in his career. Nevertheless, there’s only few of those goals that rank as high as the one Alexei Morozov scored on Sunday.
With just over nine minutes left in Game Seven of the KHL playoffs between Ak Bars Kazan and Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, the 32-year-old captain broke a scoreless tie finding a hole between goaltender Georgi Gelashvili and the post in a melee of players.

With the goaltender on his back, Morozov picked up the puck and hit the empty net on the right side of the goal behind a helpless goaltender. Lokomotiv players requested the goal to be reviewed by the video judge. Although the request was granted, it did not help their plea.

It proved to a decisive and historic decision.

Finnish netminder Frederik Norrena kept Lokomotiv scoreless as his team won the goaltending battle and raised the KHL Gagarin Cup for the first time in history. For Ak Bars it was the third Russian title in club history.

KHL President Alexander Medvedev and chairman Vyacheslav Fetisov handed out the 17-kilo trophy to Morozov. “As Yuri Gagarin was the first ever cosmonaut to return from space, Ak Bars will go down in history of Russian hockey,” Medvedev spoke. “Thank you for a great season, you are the best.”

While the ice was littered with equipment and debris, fans chanted the names of all squad members, the players fell into each others arms.

“This capped just a wonderful playoffs and an excellent series against an equal opponent. Defending the lead in the final ten minutes was extremely difficult as we were overpowered by the emotion of being so close to the title,” veteran Oleg Petrov admitted while the champagne bottles are being uncorked on the ice . “We were lucky to win, but to win this trophy at the end of my career is one of the best gifts I could have received.”

“This is an historic victory. The first one will always be remembered,” Ak Bars Vice-President Ravil Shavaleyev commented afterwards. “No matter how our player’s careers will continue, they will always be known for winning the first Gagarin Cup.”

Both Ak Bars Kazan and Lokomotiv Yaroslavl were on familiar ground in the tight final series. In 2006, Ak Bars celebrated the Superliga title followed by second playce the next year. Lokomotiv Yaroslavl missed out on the championship for the second year in a row after losing to Salavat Yulayev Ufa last season.

Yaroslavl, captained by Alexei Yashin, was heartbroken as the championship slipped through their fingers. After winning Game Five, 3-2, Lokomotiv needed just one more victory. They hoped to get it on home ice in Game Six but instead saw Jukka Hentunen get Ak Bars the victory in overtime.

“We understood the difficulty of playing such a game on home ice,” head coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov said referring to the pressure his players were under.

As opposed to its opponents, Lokomotiv was brutally efficient in the KHL post-season. The team lost just one game in the 1/8 finals against Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk before sweeping Spartak Moscow in the quarterfinals. Where most expected a long and match-up against Metallurg Magnitogorsk in the semis, “Loko” had different thoughts. The first game went lost 0-3 but what followed were four straight victories.

The new KHL champions’ path to victory was paved with more obstacles. The 1/8 final series against Kazakh team Barys Astana was no problem but next up was Jaromir Jagr’s Avangard Omsk, which had just upset regular season winner Salavat Yulayev Ufa.

Avangard struggled all season and was coached by Sergei Gernonski, Igor Nikitin and Wayne Flemming before the team management decided to re-install Nikitin. They made the playoffs on the last day of the regular season and suddenly started to click.

The snow leopards, Ak Bars’ nickname, were trailing 2-1 in the best-of-five series and only managed a narrow 3-2 shootout victory. Standing on the edge of elimination, the big stars stepped up and guided the team to the semi-finals with a blow out victory in game four (11-1) and yet another 3-2 victory in overtime.

Next up was ambitious Dynamo Moscow. After both teams exchanged victories in the first four games, Ak Bars clinched a spot in the final winning Game Five and Game Six (3-0; 3-1).

“I think we deserve this title after going through so much. The games in Omsk and Moscow were tough and my boys went through a lot. But they showed the character that belongs to a champion. I am grateful to them,” said Bilyaletdinov.

“All playoff series were difficult for us,” Morozov knew. “Omsk really tested our nerves and the games against Dynamo were really tough. We met some strong opposition on our way to the title. I think that our fans nearly suffered some heart attacks at times.”

The winning goal scorer is looking forward to playing in the Champions Hockey League next season but is not taking anything for granted. “We saw how Salavat Yulayev Ufa and Metallurg Magnitogorsk fared, so it won’t be easy for us. But we are an ambitious organization and we will challenge to win it.”

Before the season started, 24 teams dreamed of holding the Gagarin Cup above their heads. 56 regular season games and several close playoffs games later it is the Ak Bars players who stepped into the history of Gagarin. They too can now enjoy the feeling of weightlessness as it will be a long night in Kazan.

What about Morozov? Will he join the festivities?

“As soon as you let go of me,” he told a reporter.

Happy travelling and a safe landing Alexei.
 
Notebook:
  • Ak Bars’ coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov captured his third title. Previously, he won with Dynamo Moscow in 2000 and with Ak Bars in 2006. He is now tied in titles with another Russian great who is still active: Metallurg Magnitogorsk’s Valeri Belousov who won titles in 1999, 2001 and 2004.
  • Alexei Morozov scored the championship-winning goal and won the post-season scoring title with eight goals and 19 points in 21 games. Teammate Jukka Hentunen was the top sniper with nine playoff goals.
  • Yaroslavl’s netminder Gelashvili saw nearly 500 shots  during the playoffs. He stopped all but 33 of them ranking him the top goaltender in with 93.3 percent. He also posted a more than respectable 1.75 GAA.
  • Ak Bars Kazan is the master of overtime.  Six times OT was needed in Ak Bars games in the post-season. The champions won all but one (3-2 loss against Dynamo Moscow) including two in shootouts. Both Lokomotiv Yaroslavl and Avangard Omsk were twice beaten in overtime.

JOERI LOONEN


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