Monday, April 17, 2017

SKA Saint Petersburg 2017 Gagarin Cup Champions - Ilya Kovalchuk is Alive and Well and Living in Saint Petersburg

SKA Saint Petersburg captured the 2017 Gagarin Cup yesterday with a come from behind 5-3 over Metallurg Magnitogorsk yesterday to take the finals by 4 games to 1.

Kovalchuk 2017 Gagarin Cup
SKA captain Ilya Kovalchuk happily accepting the Gagarin Cup

Metallurg defeated the first year club Kunlun Red Star out of Beijing, China 4-1 and then cruised by both Barys Astana of Kazakhstan and the Russian club Ak Bars Kazan with back-to-back sweeps to advance to the finals as the Eastern Conference representative.

SKA had a similar route, defeating HC Vityaz of the Moscow region in four straight, advancing past Dynamo Moscow 4-1 and then sweeping Lokomotiv Yaroslavl 4-0, who had eliminated top seed CSKA Moscow, making SKA's route to the final just that much easier.

SKA Saint Petersburg logo

Game 1 of the finals went the way of SKA 5-4 after a back and forth affair which saw both teams leading at times. The game was tied at 2-2 after 2 periods and SKA took a 4-3 lead with a power play goal from Patrik Hersley with 5 minutes to play. Evgeny Dadonov extended the SKA lead to two at 16:59 and Tomas Filippi's goal for Metallurg with just 11 seconds remaining was too little too late for the home side Magnitogorsk.

Game 2 in Magnitogorsk was tied at 1-1 following the first period and Vladilsav Kaletnik scored the game winning goal in the second period and Tommi Santala's goal with 1:11 remaining in the game made the final score 3-1 as Vasily Koshechkin stopped 43 of 44 SKA shots in goal for Metallurg.

Game 3 at the Ice Palace in Saint Petersburg was all about the goaltenders. After a scoreless first period where SKA held an 18-3 advantage in shots, each team had a goal in the second period, as Andrei Zubarev opened the scoring at 2:54 for SKA. Agonizingly for the home fans, Denis Kazionov tied the game with just 6 seconds left in the period for Metallurg, who had a 12-6 lead in shots during period two. Neither team scored in the third period, as SKA held the edge in shots 12-5. After a scoreless first overtime, Dadonov won the game for SKA with a goal at 12:45 of the second overtime period. Mikko Koskinen got the win in goal for Saint Petersburg after making 27 saves, while Koshechkin was the hard luck loser for Magnitogorsk after making 58 saves, 24 in the two overtimes, as his offense managed only 8.

Game 4 at the Ice Palace was 1-0 for the visitors and Magnitogorsk held their one goal leading heading into the third period as the teams traded goals in the second for a 2-1 advantage. Just 1:28 into the third it was game on when Zubarev tied the game at 2-2 and Dinar Khafizullin won it for SKA when he beat Koshechkin at the 12:05 mark. Koskinen got the win in goal for SKA as they outshout Metallurg by a wide margin once again, 50-24. The win gave Saint Petersburg a 3-1 lead in games, putting them on the brink of the championship.

Yesterday's Game 5 was back in Magnitogorsk, and what a game it was. Metallurg scored first at 8:49 on a goal by Oskar Osala. Viktor Antipin extended the Magnitogorsk lead to 2-0 at 3:56 of the second period and it appeared as if it were their night.

Then three minutes later, Nikita Gusev started the SKA comeback at 7:00. Alexander Barabanov leveled the game just 2:23 later near the game's halfway mark. Dadonov scored his 9th goal of the playoffs at 14:29 to give SKA their first lead of the night at 3-2, which was the score at the end of the second period.

Koshechkin Dadonov
SKA's Dadonov attacking Koshechkin in the Metallurg goal

SKA kept rolling in the third, as Ilya Kovalchuk scored what appeared to be a back breaker at just nine seconds for a 4-2 lead for Saint Petersburg. However, Metallurg was not going to go away easy, especially at home, and Yaroslav Kosov responded to  a mere 46 seconds later to narrow the gap to 4-3 with essentially an entire period remaining to play.

Koskinen stood tall for SKA though, making 19 saves in the period while SKA managed a mere 3 shots, one of which was an empty net goal by Sergei Plotnikov with 1:06 to play to secure the championship for Saint Petersburg 4 games to 1. Despite being on the losing side, goaltender Koshechkin was named the playoff MVP.

When the start of the 2012-13 NHL season was delayed by a lockout, Kovalchuk signed with SKA and was also named team captain. He returned to the New Jersey Devils for the shortened NHL season was the labor issues were resolved, scoring 31 points in 37 games. Then, in July of 2013, he shocked the hockey world when he retired from the NHL, walking away from the $77 million and 12 years he had remaining on his contract.

While he said his reasoning was a desire to return home to Russia with his family, many accused him of following the money, as the far lower tax rate in Russia would have resulted in an even greater total salary in his pocket.

Less than a week after his "retirement", Kovalchuk signed a four year contract with Saint Petersburg. He immediately led the team to a division championship with the third best record in the league and tied Artemi Panarin for the team lead with 40 points having played 6 less games. SKA won a playoff series but were ousted in round two.

Kovalchuk was again second to Panarin in scoring in 2014-15, with 55 points in 54 games. During the playoffs, SKA defeated Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod, Dynamo Moscow, top seed CSKA and Ak Bars to capture the historic first championship for the club that was founded back in 1946, a drought of 69 seasons! Kovalchuk was third in team playoff scoring and fourth overall. He was named the playoff MVP, but refused to accept it and passed it to teammate Dadonov.

SKA 2015 Gagarin Cup team
The 2015 Gagarin Cup champions SKA Saint Petersburg

For the 2015-16 season, Kovalchuk was once again second in scoring, only this time behind Vadim Shipachev. He had 49 points in 50 games during the regular season. While SKA advanced to the semifinals before being eliminated, Kovalchuk was limited to just four games of SKA's 15 playoff games.

This season, Kovalchuk finally led SKA in scoring. He was the only member of the roster to play in all 60 of the team's games and led the club in goals with 32 and points with 78, which was second overall in the KHL.

Saint Petersburg won the Bobrov Division and finished tied with CSKA for the most overall points during the regular season. As we documented above, SKA marched through the playoffs to win their second Gagarin Cup championship in three seasons by defeating the defending champions Magnitogorsk by playing only two games over the minimum of 16 needed to win.

SKA 2017 Gagarin Cup team
The 2016-17 Gagarin Cup champions SKA Saint Petersburg

Since leaving the NHL, Kovalchuk has played in the KHL All-Star Game all four seasons, won two Gagarin Cups and one Playoff MVP award while scoring 89 goals and 222 points in 209 games.

KHL Playoffs 2016/17

Today's featured jersey is a 2016-17 SKA Saint Petersburg Pavel Datsyuk jersey. Datsyuk played in 44 of SKA's 60 games this season, scoring 12 goals and 34 points. He was injured off and on throughout the season and was injured once more during the second round of the playoffs against Dynamo which caused him to miss the Gagarin Cup finals.

SKA Saint Petersburg 2016-17 F jersey
SKA Saint Petersburg 2016-17 B jersey

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