Date: April 4, 2017

Gagarin Cup Final Preview

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By Patrick Conway – Conway’s Russian Hockey Blog

CSKA Moscow (#1 in the West Conference) vs. Metallurg Magnitogorsk (#2 in the East)

CSKA Moscow, the old Red Army team, have a record 32 national championships on their resume, but they have not won one since 1989, when Viktor Tikhonov still prowled the bench calling upon the likes of Larionov and Fetisov.  However, this season has brough them as close as they have been since those days — CSKA won the KHL regular season championship, and have been simply unstoppable in these playoffs.  Coach Dmitry Kvartalnov’s boys won their opening series in four straight against Slovan, surprisingly dropped a game before finishing off Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod in five, and then exacted some revenge for 2014-15 by sweeping defending champions SKA St. Petersburg away in four straight.  If you are keeping track, that means a playoff record of 12-1 so far.  As for Metallurg, there’s has been a slightly bumpier road for them.  Ilya Vorobyov’s Magnitogorsk side, champions in 2014 and seeded second in the East behind Avangard Omsk this time, took six games to deal with a pesky Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg, got by Sibir Novosibirsk in five (not without some controversy), and then triumphed in another five-game set against Salavat Yulaev Ufa in the East Conference Final.

It is hard to get his deep into the playoffs without nice goaltending, so no great surprise should be felt when we discover that the starting netminders for CSKA and Metallurg are first and second in the KHL in save percentage this post-season.  Ilya Sorokin, the young up-and-comer for the Moscow side, leads the way with a mark of .952 in 13 games, ever-so-slightly ahead of Metallurg’s gigantic Vasily Koshechkin at .951 in 12 games.  Both goalies have been excellent, and it would clearly be very difficult to pick between them at this point.  Koshechkin, the man of the hour when Metallurg won the Gagarin Cup in 2014, may have a slight edge when it comes to playoff experience, but really, neither team has much to worry about between the pipes.

However, we do see a difference when we look at Goals Against Average.  Here, Sorokin once again leads with the way, allowing only 1.16 goals per game in the playoffs.  Koshechkin is second in the league, but a long way off at 1.45.  So it would seem that Metallurg give up considerably more shots than CSKA, and indeed the numbers bear that out.  Metallurg goalies have been called upon an average of 30 time per game in these playoffs, while CSKA have faced only 25 shots against per contest, and that is a significant difference.  Small sample size and all that, but it’s worth noting.

CSKA’s defense is anchored by Nikita Zaitsev, probably bound for North America in the summer but for now one of the very best two-way defenders you’ll find in the KHL.  Denis Denisov has also done quietly effective work in these playoffs.  While Bogdan Kiselevich, injured in Round 1, is a significant absence, the return of Igor Ozhiganov partway through Round 2 was a welcome one.  As for Metallurg, theirs is a high-scoring defence corps, led by Chris Lee, who is second in KHL post-season points by defencemen with nine in 16 games.  However, do not lose track of Yevgeny Biryukov in this Final — only three points in 16 games so far, but he leads Metallurg with a +/- of +14, a full six points ahead of his next best team-mate by that statistic.

And that brings us to the forwards, which is where the fun really begins, because this series will pit probably the two best players in the brief history of the KHL against each other.  Metallurg’s Sergei Mozyakin and CSKA’s Alexander Radulov are first and second, respectively, in all-time league scoring, and between them have won all eight of the KHL’s season points titles.  And they are a true contrast in styles; Mozyakin is all guile and sneakiness, and there may not be a player anywhere in the hockey world more skilled at causing opposing defencemen to lose track of him when they shouldn’t (he also possesses a truly dangerous shot).  Radulov, meanwhile, combines skill with tremendous strength, and plays with a level of emotion that occasionally goes over the top and gets him into trouble.  Both men are enthralling to watch when on their games.  In these playoffs, Mozyakin leads the way league-wide with 18 points in 16 games, while Radulov, who had a quiet series against SKA (one goal and one assist), is in eighth with 11 points in 13 matches.  Like his team-mate Zaitsev, Radulov is rumoured to be heading for the NHL next season, so these may be the last games he plays for CSKA.

But it would be a mistake to concentrate entirely on Mozyakin and Radulov in this coming final, as both forward groups have other players worthy of mention.  For Metallurg, Mozyakin’s traditional linemates, Jan Kovář and Danis Zaripov, are true scoring threats in their own right; Kovář is second in playoff points with 17.  And Alexander Syomin (or Semin), a mid-season arrival from the NHL, has had a very good time of it in the post-season, with a scoring line of 7-7-14 in 16 games.  For CSKA, Stéphane Da Costa has five goals in these playoffs and Geoff Platt six, with the latter’s scoring coming in only nine games.  The fly in that particular ointment is that Platt will miss the first three games of the Final, having been suspended for a kicking incident during the series against SKA.

So, in the final analysis, the two goalies are likely just about even, while CSKA unquestionably has the defensive edge in this series.  As for scoring potential, in that I think we must give the nod to Mozyakin and Metallurg, and they will have the advantage in recent Gagarin Cup Final experience as well.  It should make for entertaining viewing, and I would not want to put money down on who will win.  In any case, the answer to that particular question will begin to reveal itself on Thursday, in Moscow, and 7:30 pm local time!

Canada, U.S. preparing for Olympic ‘Plan B’ without NHLers

By The men in charge of the Canadian and American hockey programs expressed disappointment with the NHL’s decision to forgo the 2018 Olympic Games, but made it clear they’re prepping alternate plans.

“Today’s statement by the NHL is not what we were hoping for because, ultimately, we want best-on-best at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games which, for us at Hockey Canada, includes the participation of NHL players,” Hockey Canada president and CEO Tom Renney said in a statement Monday, according to TSN.

“This does not change our preparation for the Games – we have developed both a Plan A and a Plan B, and will be ready to move forward. However, for the next month, our priority is the 2017 IIHF World Championship, and we will be ready to advance the required plan following that event.”

USA Hockey is also readying a backup plan.

“We knew it was a very real possibility for many months and certainly respect the decision of the NHL,” executive director Dave Ogrean said in a statement.

“The good news is that because of our grassroots efforts over the course of many years, our player pool is as deep as it has ever been and we fully expect to field a team that will play for a medal.”

“We respect the NHL’s decision and will examine our player pool options and plan accordingly,” added Jim Johannson, assistant executive director of hockey operations for the American hockey governing body. “In the end, we’ll have 25 great stories on the ice in South Korea and will go to the Olympics with medal expectations.”

NBC, which has the broadcast rights to the Games, claims the tournament will still be worth watching without near-full NHL rosters.

“The Olympics have been the world’s greatest international hockey tournament irrespective of whether professionals or amateurs are playing,” the network said in a statement, according to Mike Halford of NBC’s Pro Hockey Talk.

“Although we’re disappointed that NHL players will not get the chance to experience and compete at the 2018 Winter Olympics next February, we’re confident that hockey fans and Olympic viewers will tune in to watch the unique style of play that occurs at the Olympic Winter Games when athletes are competing for their country.”

With improved fitness, skills, S. Korean women’s hockey continues growth

South Korea's Park Jong-ah (C) celebrates her goal against Britain with teammates Park Chae-lin (L) and Han Soo-jin at the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) Women's World Championship Division II Group A at Kwandong Hockey Centre in Gangneung, Gangwon Province, on April 3, 2017. (Yonhap)

By Yoo Jee-ho – Yonhap News

Two games into the women’s hockey world championships on home ice this week, it’s been quite evident that South Korea has become an infinitely better team since its last international competition less than two months ago.

South Korea has defeated Slovenia 5-1 and then Britain 3-1 to open the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) Women’s World Championship Division II Group A in Gangneung, Gangwon Province. With two consecutive wins and three matches remaining, the host nation has positioned itself to capture the tournament and earn a promotion to Division I Group B next year.

Coached by former U.S. collegiate star Sarah Murray, South Korea finished fourth at the Asian Winter Games in Sapporo, Japan, two months ago. It was the country’s best showing ever at the continental event.

And South Korea showed up at the world championships even better than before. It bodes well for a young squad preparing for an Olympic debut in the same city of Gangneung next year. The world No. 23 may not win a game against Sweden, Switzerland and Japan, all top-10 countries, but South Korea may also avoid embarrassment of losing by double figures, which used to be a regular occurrence not that long ago.

Murray, daughter of the former NHL head coach Andy Murray, attributed the success so far here to improved conditioning. The national team hired a new strengthening coach to push the players more, after their fitness level emerged as an issue during the Asian Games.

With five games in seven days during the world championships, conditioning is at a premium.

“We definitely cranked up the players’ conditioning,” Murray said Sunday. “Our new strengthening coach has been doing a really great job of pushing the players.”

   The speed has always been the strength of the team, and now the players are able to compete at a fast pace for a longer stretch of time.

That clearly helped the offense against Slovenia, as South Korea fired on all cylinders and outshot the helpless opponent 78-12. With newfound strength, South Koreans are now able to get more zip behind their shots and passes.

And the added strength helped the players withstand some early pressure against physical Britain on Monday. With bigger players in its lineup, Britain applied a strong forechecking and controlled the neutral zone from the opening face-off.

Instead of running out of gas against that sort of pressure, the South Koreans took what the Brits gave them and then responded with two goals late in the first period.

At the center of the team’s progress has been forward Kim Hee-won, a 15-year-old phenom, who has scored a goal in each of the first two games. One of eight teenagers on the 22-player squad, Kim has gone from a wild player with raw talent to a precocious attacker who plays with controlled abandon.

Kim’s confidence has been palpable so far at the tournament. She has been firing shots from all over the ice — a tournament-best 14 shots — and she has demonstrated some nifty moves to dance through multiple players to create chances for herself and teammates.

Kim, at 170 centimeters tall with a booming shot, plays the right point on power plays, and has made smart decisions when helping out on defense with her positioning and stick work. She’s also hard to knock off the puck, as attested by her brilliant wraparound goal late in the third period against Britain, when she shed a defenseman behind the net and made a difficult shot look shockingly easy.

Kim said extra off-ice work — involving plenty of running and cycling — has done wonders to her overall game.

“I feel exhausted just thinking about our training regimen,” Kim said with a smile Monday. “But all that hard work is paying off now. It’s given me confidence that I can go up against bigger players and win those battles.”

   Kim spent the Asian Winter Games on the second line with Han Soo-jin as the center. But with the usual first-line forward Caroline Park out with a shoulder injury this week, Han was promoted to the top line, and third-line center Jo Su-sie joined Kim and Choi Ji-yeon on the second line.

That unit went berserk against Slovenia, combining for three goals and two assists with 18 shots fired. They were a combined plus-six for the game.

Murray then made the Jo-Kim-Choi line her top offensive unit against Britain. Kim delivered a goal, while Jo picked up an assist. In those two games, Jo has won 27 of 33 face-offs to lead the team.

Kim, who hadn’t even been old enough to play internationally until Sapporo, said playing at the Asian Games has helped her prepare for the worlds mentally.

“I wasn’t so nervous before this competition because I’d already played in a big tournament,” she said. “It puts some pressure on me to play on the first line, but I just want to reward my coach’s faith.”

   Murray, for her part, said Kim can only get better from here.

“She has so much skill and so much potential,” the coach said. “Now she has newfound confidence and hunger. She wants to shoot the puck. She wants to score. I am really proud of how she’s stepped up at this tournament so far.”

   Murray added that Kim, as a young player, should try to keep her focus on the right place at all times. Kim may do well to emulate Park Jong-ah, one of the team’s best scorers who quietly leads by example.

Park leads the team with three points on two goals and an assist. The second of those two goals was the result of a tremendous individual effort against Britain; she picked up the loose puck in the neutral zone, sped down the right wing and then cut to the middle past defenders before firing one to the top shelf.

Park shrugged off her highlight-reel goal as “a lucky break,” saying she only had the opportunity because her teammates did all the work.

Park said the team is clearly playing with more cohesion than ever before.

“We all knew our system at the Asian Games, too, but we hadn’t yet made full adjustments at the time,” she said. “We had some holes here and there, and we plugged them before the world championships. As individuals, we all tried to minimize our mistakes, and it’s worked out well so far.”

   South Korea finished second at last year’s Division II Group A event, losing out to Poland in a tiebreaker despite posting an identical record of four wins and a loss.

Park said the goal all along has been to win it all this time and do so convincingly.

“We’ve been training hard to win this tournament with a perfect record,” she said. “It won’t be easy, but I think we can do it.”

Ice Blacks back on home ice

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By Alister Mcmurran – IIHF.com

New Zealand ice hockey has the chance to boost its local profile when the Ice Blacks play in a home World Championship event for the first time in eight years.

Under-18, under-20 and women’s world championships have been held in New Zealand since then but it is the Ice Blacks that lifts the profile of the sport.

Rugby Union is the big profile sport in New Zealand and gets the most publicity and draws the biggest crowds as it is a traditional game in the country and the New Zealand All Blacks have won the last two world championships in the sport. It naturally has a big following.

But ice hockey is also an exciting spectator sport so a crowded arena is expected when the Ice Blacks compete at the Paradice Ice Rink at Auckland this week.

The Ice Blacks have prepared for the championships at Melbourne over the past week and are ready to match their skills against old rivals Turkey in their first game.

New Zealand last competed at a World Championship on home soil in 2009 in Dunedin.

There have been close ties between New Zealand and Turkey since they fought against each other during World War I 100 years ago. On the ice the competition will be intense but after the game the two teams will fraternise and have a few beers together.

Turkey is a team to watch because its under-20 team beat China 2-1 in the final of the Division III tournament in Dunedin in January.

American Keith McAdams was head coach of that team, and he fills the same role with the senior team. McAdams developed a plan to lift the standard of Turkish hockey since becoming head coach of the under-18 and under-20 teams two years ago.

Turkey won the U18 title at Auckland in 2015 and the U20 title in Dunedin this year. They should not be under-estimated as the players step up to a higher level this week.

McAdams has coached in Turkey for the last seven years with the Erzurum BBSK team and they have won eight national titles.

Thirteen members of the winning under-20 team have been selected in the senior team for this week’s championships.

“Most of the team have played for me and they know the systems,” McAdams said. “We have been able to build on this over the last three seasons.”

Turkey beat China 2-1 to win the under-20 final at Dunedin and it is certain to be a tense match when they meet this week.

Turkey won the Division III in 2016 and has been promoted to the higher level tournament.

China was demoted form Division II Group A when they finished bottom last year and will be keen to get promoted again.

It is a special time for the Chinese players because the country will host the 2022 Olympic Winter Games in Beijing, which is a big incentive for the Chinese players as they hope to lift the standard and be part of it.

Three members of the Chinese under-20 team will be competing at Auckland.

The senior players know that they must perform at the highest level to retain their spot for the Olympics. They are being chased from below because the Chinese under-18 team also won promotion at its recent World Championship tournament.

Rudi Ying, the best Chinese player at Dunedin, is one of three members of the under-20 team included in the senior team.

Ying scored the most goals in the week long championship with nine, was the scoring leader at the under-20 championships with 19 points and was named the best forward by the directorate.

American Derek Eisler, the head coach of the Israel under-20 team, is also the head coach of the senior team that includes four players from the under-20 tournament.

New Zealand has included three players from its under-20 squad in the senior team.

Two of the players – Oliver Hay and Robin Vortanov – play for Botany Swarm in the New Zealand Ice Hockey League and will be playing on their home town ice.

The Ice Blacks last played on home ice in 2011 when it beat Australia for the first time, 2-1, in a penalty shootout during the New Zealand Winter Games at Dunedin.

That win came 24 years after the first clash between the two teams when Perth hosted a World Championship event in 1987 when New Zealand was on the receiving end of what was then a world record 58-0 thrashing by Australia.

The neighbouring countries have not played an international against each other for the last six years.

But that will change this year because ice hockey has regained its spot in the biannual New Zealand Winter Games that will be held in August this year.

The three test series will be held at Queenstown, the home of the Southern Stampede that has won the New Zealand Ice Hockey League for the last two years.

“It is a big boost to ice hockey here and will give fans the chance to see the Ice Blacks in action on home ice at Auckland and Queenstown,” New Zealand Ice Hockey board member Kyle Matthews said.

The three test series will be played at the Queenstown Ice Arena on 31st August, 2nd and 3rd September 2.

The news pleased New Zealand Ice Hockey Federation president Gunther Birgel.

“Ice hockey is a heavy impact and fast sport and we are pleased to show off the excitement and skills of the game,” Birgel said.

Ice hockey was part of the first two New Zealand Winter Games that were held in 2009 and 2011.

New Zealanders enjoy the excitement of action packed team games and ice hockey drew the largest number of spectators when it was held at Dunedin at that time.

Because Australia and New Zealand ice hockey was not in the top bracket of the snow and ice sports it was dropped from the 2013 and 2015 Games.

Figure skating was also given the “heave ho” at that time when the number of sports was reduced from nine to five.

The New Zealand Winter Games Committee now realized their mistake and has re-introduced ice hockey this year because it is the snow and ice sport that attracts the most spectators.

The six competing teams in the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division II Group A in Auckland are China, Mexico, Israel, DPR Korea, Turkey and New Zealand.

It is the first time that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has ever competed at a sports event in New Zealand.

The New Zealand Ice Hockey Federation decided earlier this year that it is not able to afford live stream coverage of ice hockey. It has opted for a cheaper version and coverage of all the games will be available on the New Zealand Ice Hockey Federation’s Facebook page.