CSKA Moscow has never won a championship in the post-Soviet era. The team has been playing hockey in every league since the formation of the Soviet League in 1946, and in the old days they were so dominant they won the championship 13 years in a row beginning in 1977.
We called them Red Army in those days, and they were the symbol of Russian hockey to the West.
But through the various leagues that followed and since the KHL was founded in 2008, they've never won. They've never hoisted the Gagarin Cup.
With the final series against Metallurg Magnitogorsk tied at three games each, the deciding game seven was played in Moscow on a Tuesday night.
CSKA's home games follow a pattern—the crowd is passionate, some of the players more so; the camera pans past ordinary fans and luxuriously dressed people to famous faces in the stands.
GM Sergei Fedorov, even bearded, looks more than passingly similar to Steve Yzerman intently watching the action.
The games in Magnitogorsk were different.
When Nikita Soshnikov gently chided a Leafs reporter for only having been to the good places in Russia, Magnitogorsk was one of the places he knew that reporter had missed. It's a day's drive from his hometown of Nizhny Tagil, a trip that takes you through Yekaterinburg where Avtomobilist play and Chelyabinsk where Traktor have home ice.
Magnitogorsk is built on a mountain of pure iron, and it's a steel town through and through. The name Metallurg is a gift from the steel and iron works that founded the team. Their steel that travels to nearby cities for car and tractor factories who bestow names on their teams that are full of pride for the things they build.
The working class roots showed in the crowd at Metallurg's home games. The camera panned past ordinary fans dressed less in furs and more like the rest of us when we go to a hockey game, and just kept going, finding only the same. The celebrities were back in Moscow.
The love for the team was the same. The passion was the same.
Magnitka (even the Russians need a nickname for Magnitogorsk) know how to win. They won the Gagarin Cup in 2014 and the Russian Superleague three times. They are a team with a history almost as long as CSKA's, even if we had only ever heard of them when Evgeni Malkin and Nikolay Kulemin came to the NHL.
Today's game may well have been Zaitsev's last—at least for a while—in the KHL.
When Fedorov left the NHL it was Magnitka he went to for three years to play on the same team as his brother. He knows how tough the team is. He knows Sergei Mozyakin, the scoring star of the KHL, the undisputed best player on Magnitka, the master of the last minute comeback goal.
Nikita Zaitsev is a Moscow boy, a city boy, and he was born in 1991, just as the final season for the Soviet League was getting underway. He's paid his dues, though, he played for Sibir Novosibirsk, a team that is a long way due east of Magnitogorsk, halfway to Mongolia. His move to CSKA three years ago was a huge step up for him.
He's made the most of the opportunity, becoming the best defenceman on the top team in the KHL, earning the total trust of his coach and his teammates and playing the most minutes in every single game.
Today's game may well have been his last—at least for a while—in the KHL.
The players took the ice between a military honour guard and smoke machines before they lined up to hear the army choir take to the ice and sing the anthem. CSKA was staking claim to their own roots.
The camera panned to the well turned out celebrities and then to Vladislav Tretiak, the president of the Russian Ice Hockey Federation. The Magnitka brass were in attendance wearing sport coats with no ties. They're the kind of barrel-chested men on whom a modern skinny suit would be an absurdity.
With the ceremonies out of the way, the game took everyone's attention.
The action was intense for the entire first period, and CSKA dominated in shots, shots on goal, and had the only power play. They had chances. But it was Magnitka that scored. Evgeny Timkin with his first ever playoff goal:
Icebreaker. pic.twitter.com/9XYqZ4t92I— KHL News - English (@KHLNewsEN) 19 April 2016
Mikhail Yunkov, the game six hero, came close, and Zaitsev drove hard to the net to pick up an Alexander Radulov pass, but his stick was lifted and he couldn't convert.
The score was 1-0 Metallurg after 20 minutes.
In the second, CSKA continued to dominate, but Magnitka effectively disrupted their every move, aggressively defending the neutral zone. Puck carriers had to dump it in, the usual wave-like flow of CSKA's offensive game was broken apart time and time again.
It seemed inevitable that they would score, but also it was fair to wonder if they might never break through Magnitka's defence. The tension ratcheted higher.
Maxim Mamin finally succeeded.
Equalizer.... pic.twitter.com/t7cQlqK8W6— KHL News - English (@KHLNewsEN) 19 April 2016
Magnitka couldn't just defend anymore; they had to counter attack, and the flow turned. CSKA under, pressure, tried to clear the puck, and Chris Lee, Magnitka's star defenceman put it in to take the lead back.
The score stood at 2-1 after two periods.
The third was more even between the two teams at first, and Magnitka had some chances to nail the door shut on the desperate CSKA side. Mozyakin, with Zaitsev hanging right off the front of him, still got a shot off, and minutes later Alexander Semin nearly made it 3-2.
Gradually CSKA took the game over again, and despite some increasingly physical play—Zaitsev was checked hard nearly into the Metallurg bench by Timkin—they had multiple chances, but could not get past the shot-blocking, sticks in lanes and the Metallurg goalie.
The Magnitka brass weren't sure their lead would hold:
With the goalie pulled in the final minutes, Zaitsev made shot after shot, threading them through legs and bodies, but the puck never made it all the way. He seemed to never leave the ice, as CSKA was down to their best men. The inevitable happened.
Timkin again, with the empty net goal, killed the last hope of a CSKA comeback. It was his night. It was Magnitka's night.
Final score: 3-1 for the men of steel from Metallurg Magnitogorsk.
Чемпионы! pic.twitter.com/cYQiRxZCGd— KHL (@khl) 19 April 2016
Zaitsev still hasn't won his cup. He'll have to try to get one in the NHL.