Justin Azevedo made it four goals in three games to lead Lev to a narrow 3-2 win over Metallurg Magnitogorsk and retake the lead in the Kontinental League Gagarin Cup final on a dramatic night in Prague.
If the Canadian’s earlier goals in this series had been a garnish on the first two games, his third period goals here were crucial – and after snatching the game winner with 24 seconds left to play he even found time to make a block on Magnitka’s last shot of the game, cementing the win.
The decisive goal came less than a minute after Metallurg’s Francis Pare believed he had taken the game into overtime, but a final surge from Lev saw Mikko Maenpaa pick out Azevedo in the right-hand circle. Azevedo put his shot upstairs to spark delirious scenes among a record-breaking crowd in the Czech Republic.
Fifty-four seconds earlier, though, the mood was despondent as Pare forced the puck home from close range after Sergei Mozyakin – again a big threat throughout – saw his shot loop off a stick and sew confusion in front of Petri Vehanen’s goal.
Lev, defending a 6-on-5 storm, was disgruntled. The home team believed that a hard check on Martin Thornberg at center ice had gone unpunished shortly before the goal, and that Azevedo had been robbed of a deserved game-winner for his earlier power play effort. That strike, midway through the final period, came off an exquisite diagonal pass from Nathan Oystrick to snap a 1-1 tie and give Lev a vital advantage in a game where chances were at a premium for long periods.
The dramatic finish echoed the game’s explosive start. It was a mere 85 seconds old when Jiri Sekac got the crowd on its feet with the opening goal. Lev’s first attack of the game paid off when Petr Vrana fed his young colleague and the forward circled Vasily Koshechkin’s net to score on the wraparound.
Given the rigidity of Lev’s defense and the reliability of goalie Vehanen throughout this series, the early goal ensured that the pressure was squarely on Magnitka. But Lev was in no mood to give up chances: a combination of powerful forechecking and surprising lethargy from the visitor saw Vehanen a virtual spectator for long periods. The frustration was getting to Metallurg’s forwards, and when Jan Kovar wrestled his way into a rare opportunity late in the first he ended up penalized for cross checking the goalie.
The second period saw more from the Magnitogorsk offense. Kovar set the tone early on, finding the outside of the post from a tight angle, and Mozyakin set up Danis Zaripov for a terrific chance which drew a fine save from Vehanen. In between, though, Sekac showed lovely stick handling to carve out a chance for himself and force a pad save from Koshechkin.
But, as has so often been the case this season, Mozyakin got a crucial goal for his team, tying the game late in the second. With Lev shorthanded, the forward made the most of the extra space, finding some open ice to storm into the upper slot before ripping an shot past Vehanen.
This was also a night that broke new ground for the KHL as a Gagarin Cup final series game was played beyond Russia’s borders for the first time: Prague’s O2 Arena hosted the biggest crowd in the competition with 16,435 spectators cramming in for the occasion. There was also an individual record for Metallurg goalie Koshechkin, who set a new mark for the most game time of any player in a Russian championship.
Game 4 of the series is Thursday in Prague.