Category: KHL (page 1 of 4)

Two UBC hockey players get signed by KHL’s Kunlun Red Star

By Mike Raptis – The province

Two UBC Thunderbirds mens hockey players are off to Beijing to play for the KHL’s HC Kunlun Red Star organization.

Luke Lockhart and Derek Dun, both of Chinese descent but born in Canada, were signed on Thursday after impressing the Red Star’s executives in a scouting camp at 8-Rinks Burnaby in early June.

Lockhart, from Burnaby, was a top-six forward for the Thunderbirds this season. He played junior hockey with the WHL’s Seattle Thunderbirds. Dun, a Surrey native, was the T-Birds’ starting goalie. He had had played the previous two seasons for Northern Michigan in the NCAA.

Former Vancouver Canucks head coach and Stanley Cup Champion ‘Iron’ Mike Keenan will be their next head coach.

Jokerit To Host SKA In Open – Air Classic


On the 2nd of December, 2017, Helsinki will host a KHL regular championship match between Jokerit and SKA Saint Petersburg, and the game will be a “Winter Classic” staged in an outdoor arena. The timing of the match coincides with three significant anniversaries: the 10th season of the Kontinental Hockey League, the 50th anniversary of the founding of HC Jokerit, and the centenary year of hockey in Finland.

The idea of holding a first-ever outdoor game in a KHL regular championship came from Jokerit. The Helsinki club proposed marking its 50-year jubilee with a major celebration for all the fans in Finland, and the plan drew enthusiastic support from the KHL.

A KHL match between two of the strongest European clubs will be one of the highlights of the League’s 10th anniversary season. Thanks to the vast territory covered by the KHL, the game in Helsinki will attract the attention of people across many countries and from fans of clubs which play in the competition. For this reason, marking the 100th anniversary of Finnish hockey with a KHL match dedicated to the occasion will be a superb way to raise awareness throughout an entire continent about the strong traditions of these great hockey powers. At the same time, the teams will be playing for valuable points in the regular season, and so the game will be fiercely competitive and even more exciting for the fans of both clubs.

The venue for the match was chosen with great care. It was here, over one hundred years ago, on the frozen waters of an inlet separating Siltasaari and Kaisaniemi, two areas of Helsinki, that amateur hockey players first started playing the exciting new game, which in those years involved fighting for possession of a ball rather than a puck.  Soon the Finns had created a permanent rink in Kaisaniemi Park, and matches in the national championship have been played here to this day.

Three days after the Jokerit – SKA game, the same venue will stage a match from the Finnish League. The two games are united under the banner, “Helsinki Ice Challenge,” and surrounding the playing surface will be special stands built to accommodate around 18,000 spectators. A sell-out crowd for this event would set a new attendance record for the League.

It is hoped the fans will feel the atmosphere of a century ago, a time when a new sport was taking its first steps on Finnish soil. Most of the open-air stadium will be for standing spectators, as that is how the hardy souls watched hockey back in those pioneering days. The Finnish club has announced that tickets for the match will go on sale from the 8th of June, 2017.

This match in the Great Outdoors is just one of many planned events dedicated to marking the 10th anniversary of the Kontinental Hockey League. News of the other surprises and celebrations to delight the fans during this anniversary season will appear in due course on the League’s official website.

Wojtek Wolski back on ice 8 months after breaking neck in KHL game


Wojtek Wolski is back on the ice less than a year after a headfirst dive into the boards that left him with two broken cervical vertebrae, spinal cord trauma, and a concussion.

The former NHL winger took to Instagram on Tuesday to announce he’s preparing for the new KHL season, capping off a long road to recovery that began back in October. Wolski was playing for the KHL’s Metallurg Magnitogorsk at the time of the accident and subsequent diagnosis.

Drafted 21st overall by Colorado in 2004, Wolski has spent the past four seasons in the KHL after finishing his NHL career with a brief stint in Washington in 2013.

He’d registered five goals and five assists in 19 games prior to the injury, after helping Magnitogorsk win the Gagarin Cup as KHL champions in 2016.

SKA Wins The Gagarin Cup


SKA wins the series 4-1)

SKA St. Petersburg wrapped up its second Gagarin Cup triumph in three seasons with a battling victory in game five in Magnitogorsk.

Oleg Znarok’s team displayed the hallmarks of a true champion, battling back from 0-2 to wrest control of the game and complete the series in five. In contrast with SKA’s previous Gagarin Cup triumph in 2015, when the team went to Kazan and overwhelmed Ak Bars with a devastating first-period performance, this game was all about patience, belief and finding a way to retrieve a difficult situation.

Metallurg, knowing that only victory would prolong its defense of the title it won last season, produced a start that got the home fans believing that their hopes could be resurrected this Easter Sunday. In the third minute, Alexei Bereglazov’s shot was tipped beyond Mikko Koskinen by Sergei Mozyakin; only the post saved SKA. In the ninth minute, though, Oskar Osala would not be denied. He raced onto Tommi Santala’s pass, got away from Alexander Barabanov and shot from the face-off spot to beat Koskinen over the glove for a goal reminiscent of his marker in Metallurg’s 2-3 loss in Petersburg on Friday.

That was the only goal of the first period, but Viktor Antipin doubled the home lead early in the second when his shot from the left took a deflection off Yegor Rykov’s skate and beat Koskinen. In a series where two-goal leads have been scarce, Metallurg was looking good to win the game and take the action back to Petersburg.

The momentum changed fast. A penalty on Danis Zaripov saw SKA quickly convert its power play chance: Evgeny Dadonov rushed down the right, played the puck back into the center from the goalline and found Nikita Gusev perfectly placed to fire home a one-timer from between the hashmarks.

The fans who came to the game in referees’ uniforms with a SKA logo replacing the KHL’s crest would, no doubt, have continued to protest the perceived injustice of Zaripov’s latest penalty call. SKA, meanwhile, was inspired and went on to tie the game two minutes later. Alexander Barabanov got the goal, but it was all about Ilya Kovalchuk’s pass from behind the net. SKA’s captain picked up on a broken play in Metallurg’s zone and set off around the boards, but opted to pass early from the near post when he spotted Barabanov peeling into space right in front of Vasily Koshechkin’s net.

Suddenly, the pattern of the game was transformed. Metallurg, having built itself a winning position, had to start afresh. SKA, facing a trip back to Petersburg, now saw its way clear to winning the cup on the night.

That pathway become even wider for the visitor in the 35th minute when Dadonov converted a two-on-two rush. Gusev fed Vadim Shipachyov, who brought the puck smoothly through center ice. Metallurg’s covering defensemen were caught out, unsure whether to block the shot or the pass, and ultimately failed to do either as Shipachyov’s perfectly-weighted pass picked out Dadonov for a one-timer that Koshechkin could do nothing with. Three goals in seven-and-a-half minutes had transformed the destiny of the game and the series.

Kovalchuk made it 4-2 just nine seconds into the final stanza. Patrik Hersley intercepted a pass out of Metallurg’s zone, advanced into an attacking position and fed Kovy for an emphatic finish. But Magnitka, rocked, was not done. Yaroslav Kosov made it 3-4 within a minute, collecting a loose puck after Artyom Zub collided with a linesman and advancing to find the bottom corner under pressure from Andrei Zubarev.

The final period was anxious; Metallurg fought hard, piling up the pressure and finishing with a 20-3 advantage on the shot count. But Koskinen was in unbeatable form, and kept his best save until last. With less than two minutes left, and Magnitka using six skaters, a rebound dropped for Osala on the slot. The Finn’s shot drew an instinctive reaction stop from his compatriot, and the puck rolled agonizingly alone the goal line before bouncing to safety off the post.

That proved to be the last chance. Two time-outs later, SKA resumed, won a face-off at its own net and got the puck clear for Sergei Plotnikov to score an empty-netter. Koskinen still needed to complete his 42nd save of the night and deny Zaripov, but the 2017 Gagarin Cup had found its home.

SKA’s victory means that the Petersburg club is the fourth to lift the Gagarin Cup twice, joining Metallurg Magnitogorsk, Ak Bars and Dynamo Moscow. Head coach Znarok becomes the first coach to win it three times, having twice claimed the top prize in the capital. The 4-1 margin in the final series matches the best ever, twice achieved by Vyacheslav Bykov as head coach of Salavat Yulaev (2011) and SKA (2015). Like Bykov, Znarok has also now won the cup while combining his club duties with taking charge of Team Russia.

Gagarin Cup Final Preview

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!

SKA vs Lokomotiv, Metallung vs Ak Bars Eastern Preview, Western Preview


SKA vs Lokomotiv – Western Preview

Omsk, April 25, 2012. 52 minutes into game seven of the Gagarin Cup Final, Jakub Klepis scores the decisive goal for Dynamo Moscow, defeating Avangard. Dynamo’s captain, Alexei Kudashov, goes to collect the trophy and celebrates victory with head coach Oleg Znarok, two years after the pair lost out in game seven of the 2010 Grand Final with MVD.

Fast forward to 2017. Five years on, Kudashov and Znarok are seeking more Gagarin Cup glory … but this time they stand in each other’s way. Znarok, who went on to defend his title in Moscow before taking up his position with Team Russia, is now behind the bench at SKA. Kudashov ended his playing career after Dynamo’s first triumph and spent two seasons as head coach at Atlant before moving to Lokomotiv in 2015. Now, both men are preparing for this week’s Western Conference Final as SKA faces Lokomotiv.

Znarok’s coaching career is well-known. His success at club and international level speaks for itself, while his spiky character has introduced a new, combative attitude to Team Russia after the patrician strategies of the Zinetula Bilyaletdinov era. At SKA, the lavish collection of exquisitely talented players on offense feels different to his previous club teams at MVD and Dynamo. But for all the thrilling talent on display, the Army Men are no soft touch when it comes to a battle. Maybe it isn’t co-incidence that Pavel Datsyuk, that most elegant of hockey players, picked up the first game misconduct of his career while playing under Znarok. Anyone involved with this coach understands that talent – no matter how outrageous – will never be enough to exempt any player from putting in the hard yards on the ice.

Kudashov’s story is a bit different. Two seasons of struggle at Atlant saw financial constraints hamper the team. Twice, he fell just short of a playoff spot. When Lokomotiv came calling, it looked like a change of direction for the Yaroslavl team: no more big-name foreigners; instead, a calculated gamble on a rising star of Russian coaching. Now 45, Kudashov shows signs of delivering on that promise – and of helping Loko develop its own emerging talents. He’s spoken of his willingness to give serious game time to the leading products of the renowned Yaroslavl hockey school, and that has been rewarded with big performances from the likes of Pavel Kraskovsky, Yegor Korshkov and Alexander Polunin. That trio has impressed for club and country, playing as a single line at Lokomotiv and for Russia’s u20s. The elder two, Kraskovsky and Korshkov, also featured in Russia’s senior roster during the successful Euro Hockey Tour campaign. Polunin, already attracting attention from across the Atlantic, told earlier this season that Lokomotiv’s commitment to nurturing young talent was a big part of why he left Moscow to continue his development in Yaroslavl. “Because of the coaches’ trust, young players gain confidence and play better,” he said. “It’s very good because it helps me develop and grow better and faster.”

That young trio has played a valuable cameo role in the current playoffs, but Lokomotiv’s biggest strength so far has been its power play. It’s no coincidence that D-man Jakub Nakladal, a two-way player with a mighty slap shot, is the team’s leading goalscorer: partnered by Staffan Kronwall while Brandon Kozun pulls those power play strings, the Czech has emerged as a formidable weapon in post-season, three seasons after he helped defeat Lokomotiv at this stage while playing for Lev Prague.

Kudashov has some injury worries: first-choice goalie Alexei Murygin missed the last two games of the series against CSKA and his fitness is uncertain ahead of Thursday’s opener in Petersburg. Kozun took a hit to the head during Grigory Panin’s rampage on Saturday and did not feature in the latter half of that game.

Znarok, meanwhile, is without defenseman Vyacheslav Voynov, who has not featured since appearing in one shift in the final game of the regular season.

Metallung vs Ak Bars – Eastern Preview


When it comes to Eastern Conference success, Metallurg Magnitogorsk and Ak Bars Kazan are the go-to teams. Between them, they’ve featured in five out of eight Gagarin Cup finals. They’ve represented the Eastern Conference in the last three seasons and both organizations are bidding to become the first team in history to win three Gagarin Cups. Yet their paths to glory have been somewhat different.

For Metallurg, continuity has been the key. The team that has reached this stage bears more than a passing resemblance to Mike Keenan’s 2014 championship roster. Persevering with the MozyakinKovarZaripov troika was something of a no-brainer, but it’s impressive to see how many senior players from three years ago are still producing top-class performances. The likes of goalie Vasily Koshechkin and defenseman Chris Lee remain formidable players, while Lee’s partner Viktor Antipin, still just 24, has matured into a player whose contribution belies his relatively young age. New players have been introduced, but they tend to emerge from within the Metallurg youth system – eg Alexei Bereglazov – or get snapped up as promising youngsters – such as Evgeny Timkin or Tomas Filippi. There’s no attempt to buy instant success here; the focus is on establishing a dynasty at the top of the game.

Even behind the bench, the changes have been evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Keenan moved upstairs into an advisory role during the 2014-15 season, bringing his deputy, Ilya Vorobyov, into the spotlight. Vorobyov has continued to work with the coaching infrastructure that existed under Keenan, and the whole organization has reaped the rewards of that consistency. While there may be an element of good fortune in that key players have remained fit and in form for several seasons, there’s no luck at all about consistent results at a club that has established a clear model of how it plays its hockey.

The Ak Bars story is rather different. On the face of it, it’s easy to draw a direct line linking Zinetula Bilyaletdinov’s all-conquering teams of 2009 and 2010 and the present roster. Coach Bill is still in charge, and during his absence on international duty his place was filled by long-term right-hand man Valery Belov. When Bilyaletdinov led the team to the Gagarin Cup final in 2015 at the end of his first season back at the club following his spell in charge of Team Russia, it felt like business as usual at a club he has dominated for more than a decade.

Not so. A radical overhaul of the club’s roster followed the 1-4 loss to SKA. It started on defense, where Ilya Nikulin, Evgeny Medvedev and Yakov Rylov were among the stalwarts to move on. Of the nine D-men who suited up in the 2015 playoffs, only Stepan Zakharchuk and Damir Musin are still involved in Kazan, while goalie Emil Garipov has emerged from the sidelines to be the undisputed #1.

Up front, the changes are less prominent, although the departure of Osсar Moller has affected the potency of Ak Bars’ offense. The key new figure, Vladimir Tkachyov, was involved in 2015 but has gone from a bit-part player to a vital component of the attack. Now 23, he’s enjoyed something of a break-out year this time around, winning an All-Star call-up and international recognition. Currently he tops the post-season scoring in Kazan with 11 (2+9) points. This season’s leading playoff goalscorers for the club, Jiri Sekac and Fyodor Malykhin, have both arrived since the previous Grand Final appearance. Sekac, part of the Lev Prague team that reached the 2014 final, has renewed a profitable combination with Justin Azevedo, Malykhin has quietly grown in stature since arriving from Avtomobilist.

Perhaps the most intriguing change in the two rosters involves Rafael Batyrshin. This time last year, the defenseman was part of Magnitka’s cup-winning roster. Now, he’s shrugged off the injuries that blighted his regular season and is a solid part of Ak Bars’ defense. An archetypal ‘stay-at-home’ D-man, Batyrshin doesn’t grab the headlines in the manner of Lee or Nikulin – his three post-season assists this time around represent a career high. Now, Kazan waits to see if his insider knowledge of Magnitka’s all-powerful forwards can wrest the cup away from the holder.


Longtime NHL coach Mike Keenan hired by Chinese team

By The Associated Press

Mike Keenan is taking charge of a Chinese hockey team.

The longtime NHL coach has been hired to lead Chinese club Kunlun Red Star, which competes in the Russia-based Kontinental Hockey League. Kunlun’s aim is to develop Chinese players as the country builds a national team to compete at its first home Winter Olympics in 2022.

Keenan, who ended the New York Rangers’ 54-year wait for a Stanley Cup title in 1994, has been instructed to ensure at least five Chinese players get regular ice time on a roster dominated by foreigners.

It’s not Keenan’s first job outside North America. In 2015, he became the first coach to win NHL and KHL titles when his Metallurg Magnitogorsk team won the KHL’s Gagarin Cup.

KHL Playoffs Round 2 Preview: East

By Patrick Conway – Conway’s Russian Hockey

(1) Metallurg Magnitogorsk vs. (5) Barys Astana

Metallurg had a fairly routine time against Kunlun Red Star Beijing in the first round, winning through in five games, but there may be a dark cloud on the horizon.  That cloud is the tape wrapped around the left wrist and hand of Mr. Sergei Mozyakin, especially when we note that Mozyakin, who recently set KHL records for goals and points in a season, scored “only” 2-4-6 in Round 1.  For now, this is merely something to keep an eye on (there has, unsurprisingly, been no official word on a possible injury), and Metallurg fans can console themselves with the fact that all six of Mozyakin’s Round 1 points came in the last three games, so he appears to be feeling better.  Furthermore, the brevity of the series against KRS means that the Magnitogorsk players will have enjoyed a full week of resting up their aches and sprains.

[You may have noticed, by the way, that the video linked above was from the ceremony honouring Mozyakin for 1000 career points, a mark no one else has achieved in Russian domestic hockey.  The KHL has a very nice career retrospective video of Mozyakin here!]

And of course, while Mozyakin is the KHL’s best player (ever), coach Ilya Vorobyov’s Metallurg are hardly a one-man band.  Danis Zaripov and defenceman Chris Lee both recorded nine points in Round 1, just behind league-leading Brandon Kozun of Lokomotiv, while Jan Kovář added eight of his own.  Zaripov, Kovář, and Oskar Osala all provided hat-tricks to the cause against Kunlun Red Star as well.  And Metallurg got good service from both their goalies.  Veteran Vasily Koshechkin did concede three goals on ten shots in the Game 4 loss, but put up a .927 sv% in three other games, while burgeoning young star Ilya Samsonov was an eye-catching .949 in a game and a half’s worth of action.  Koshechkin seems the preferred starter right now, but Samsonov is a wonderful fall-back option, and may be more than that by the end of the playoffs.

Metallurg split the two games against their Round 2 opponents this season, winning 3-1 at home but losing 5-3 in Kazakhstan, and Barys Astana are becoming a more impressive team by the day.  They went into Round 1 against a defensively very sound Traktor Chelyabinsk squad without one of their main scoring threats (Brandon Bochenski, whose return date is still unknown), but it hardly seemed to matter.  Traktor were overcome in six games, as Nigel Dawes continued his splendid scoring season by finding the net four times.  Journeyman forward Konstantin Pushkaryov, who has never scored more than 17 points in a KHL regular season, filled in for Bochenski admirably on the top line, contributing 2-2-4 and scoring the fastest-ever goal from the start of a KHL playoff game (11 seconds).  And Kevin Dallman, long one of the best scoring d-men in the KHL, was there with five assists as well.

Perhaps most encouraging for Barys, however, was the play of goalie Henrik Karlsson.  The 33-year-old Swede (and former Calgary Flame) played every minute against Traktor, and stopped 171 of 182 shots (.940 sv%, fifth-best among playoff goalies).  If he can keep that up, it will give the Kazakh team something it has sorely lacked in previous seasons.

Barys missed the playoffs in 2015-16 for the first time ever, and their current campaign began with disgrace, three straight losses, and a very early coaching change.  “New” bench boss Eduard Zankovets, who arrived in early September, deserves tremendous credit for the fact that Barys are now among the last eight KHL teams standing.  The problem is that for all Barys’ qualities, Metallurg have an answer.  Dawes was the KHL’s second-leading goalscorer this season… behind Mozyakin.  Is Dallman a superb scoring defenseman?  He is, but not as good as Chris Lee at this point.  If Karlsson is seen to be outplaying Koshechkin in net, Metallurg can switch to Samsonov, and so on.  This series will be no slam dunk for the Magnitogorsk team, but if they keep their wits about them, Metallurg should advance in five or six games.

(2) Avangard Omsk Oblast vs. (3) Ak Bars Kazan

How similar were these two teams in the regular season?  They both finished with overall records of 38-22, and 109 pts (Avangard are the two-seed for winning their division, while Ak Bars finished second to Metallurg in theirs).  Even more remarkably, they conceded the same number of goals (127 each).  As far as goals scored is concerned, Avangard got the better of it, scoring 156 goals while Ak Bars could only manage… 155.  This series might be close, is what I’m saying.

Avangard, under coach Fyodor Kanareikin, got past far-eastern Admiral Vladivostok in Round 1 in six games, and were particularly ruthless at home — they out-scored Admiral 14-4 under Omsk skies.  Erstwhile St. Louis Blue Vladimír Sobotka led them in scoring with a line of 3-5-8 in the six games, but Avangard got goals from 14 different players in the series, which is remarkable.  Swedish defenseman Erik Gustafsson was not one of the players who scored, but he did come up with five assists.  So this is a team, quite clearly, that one cannot sleep on no matter who is on the ice.

One niggling little question for Avangard concerns the goaltending, where Dominik Furch’s sv% of .922 was only about league-average, no better (although no worse either).  It may not matter, however, as Furch faced just 140 shots in 400 Round 1 minutes (about 21 per game).  Full credit, therefore, to the Omsk defence, and we should note in particular Yunas Anelyov; he not only tied for the team lead with three goals, but was +10 over the six games.

However, and with all due respect to Admiral Vladivostok, Ak Bars Kazan are a different kettle of fish.  Round 1 saw the Tatarstan giants came through the Green Derby (about which Arto Palovaara has a nice piece here) in five games, but in no way was it a rout of fierce rivals Salavat Yulaev Ufa.  All five games were settled by a single goal, and while only one went to overtime, two others saw the winning tally arrive in the final ten seconds of the third period (both times in Ak Bars’ favour, incidentally).  It was a tremendous series, for all its brevity, and any team that comes out on top in such a match-up must be taken seriously.

Four of those first-round games ended 2-1, so it is no surprise that Ak Bars are a little short of big scoring numbers at the moment.  Jiří Sekáč and Fyodor Malykhin both scored three goals, while Justin Azevedo led the points parade with a line of 2-4-6.  Ak Bars got goals from only six different players, and only one goal total from the defence (that was an important one, however; Atte Ohtamaa’s tally was one of those two last-second winners).

No, as is traditional with Ak Bars and their long-serving head coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov, the strength came from the defence, as they held a powerful Salavat Yulaev forward group to about 23 shots per game.  Emil Garipov was preferred to Stanislav Galimov in net, and produced a sv% of .933, which can take a team a long way against that small a number of shots.

Ak Bars also swept the season series against Avangard, winning 1-0 at home and 3-2, in overtime, on the road, but that tells us little as the most recent of those games was in November.  In fact, picking this series approaches impossibility.  Ak Bars have the hotter goalie at the moment, while Avangard have home ice advantage.  Both teams are defensively very strong, and, as noted above, their regular season numbers are stunningly alike.  So, with one eye on the small but significant difference in the goalies’ save percentages, and another on sheer gut instinct, I say… Ak Bars in seven.

KHL Playoffs Round 2 Preview: West

By Patrick Conway – Conway’s Russian Hockey

Round 1 of the 2016-17 Gagarin Cup playoffs went very much by the form book; all four top seeds won through, and none took more than five games to do it.  But don’t be fooled — there was plenty of drama to be had, as seven of the 18 games played went to overtime, and another three were settled by a single goal or by two including an empty-net tally.  And now we are off to the second round, beginning on Wednesday; read on, as we take a look at the possibilities in the Conference semifinals!

(1) CSKA Moscow vs. (4) Lokomotiv Yaroslavl

One of the teams in this series swept the other in regular season play, has the KHL’s top playoff scorer after Round 1 despite advancing in a mere five games, and can boast a guy tied for third in defence scoring.  And their goalie posted a .953 sv% in the four first-round victories.  That team is Lokomotiv Yaroslavl.  So, an upset in the making here?

It could happen.  While it is true that Lokomotiv benefited from some generous Dinamo Minsk defending and goaltending in round one, Brandon Kozun’s scoring line of 5 gp, 1-9-10 does catch the eye (as does the 3-3-6 put up by rearguard Staffan Kronwall).  Goalie Alexei Murygin, meanwhile, had a tough outing in Game 4 against Dinamo (4 GA on 17 shots), but as noted above he was stellar the rest of the time.   And although their Belarusan opponents did manage to snatch a Game 4 victory and thus avoid the sweep, Lokomotiv were hardly challenged in the series, outscoring Dinamo 18-5 in their four victories.  So the Yaroslavl side is clearly coming in red hot, firing on all proverbial cylinders, and poised to launch a real threat to the league’s regular-season champions.

CSKA, on the other hand, swept their opening-round series against Jokerit Helsinki, but three of the four games went to overtime, and the other was not settled until a late empty-netter.  CSKA did get a superb performance from goalie Ilya Sorokin (.942 sv%), whom the KHL deemed the best netminder of the first round, but struggled somewhat to score goals, with just 11 total in the series (their best scorer was defenceman Bogdan Kiselevich, now tied for 25th overall in points with four).  Then there is the niggling fact that CSKA were beaten twice (3-1 away and 3-2 in a shootout at home) by Lokomotiv in the regular season, and when we put it all together, we can certainly see the possibilities for the upset.

However, a handful of games against a single opponent, plus two head-to-head match-ups in the regular season (neither of them more recent than late December, by the way), does not comprise a terribly reliable body of evidence.  For one thing, while Lokomotiv were, as noted, facing a weak defence-goaltending combo in Round 1, CSKA were up against some very strong play by Jokerit’s Ryan Zapolski (.931 sv%), who was key in keeping the games closer than they might otherwise have been.  For another, over the course of the regular season, CSKA gave up 20 fewer goals than Lokomotiv (110-130, and that 110 was fewest in the league) and scored 20 more (183-163), managing the latter feat despite the lengthy injury absence of now-healthy scoring forward Stéphane Da Costa.  Simply put, CSKA were the better team this season by some distance, as is duly reflected in the seedings.

Add it all together, and what do we get?  Lokomotiv are a good team playing very well, and will pose a stiff test for the Moscow giants.  But I think CSKA will come through in six or seven games.

(2) SKA St. Petersburg vs. (3) Dynamo Moscow

SKA’s sweep of Vityaz Moscow Oblast in Round 1 was the real deal; 23-6 was the total GF-GA, as the little playoff first-timers from the Moscow suburbs found themselves firmly in the “stalwart but overmatched” category.  Eight SKA players, including defencemen Patrik Hersley and Anton Belov, managed at least four points, led by a rampaging Yevgeny Dadonov (4-4-8) and the evergreen Pavel Datsyuk (2-5-7).  Even more impressively, they potted nearly six goals per game despite getting only three points from regular-season team scoring leader Ilya Kovalchuk, who posted a quiet two goals and an assist.  While strength of competition must be taken into account here, SKA were an offensive juggernaut throughout the season as well (a KHL single-season record 249 goals), so this performance was no fluke.

At the back, coach Oleg Znarok made an interesting choice: he relied entirely on veteran Mikko Koskinen, who had a poor regular season (.916 sv%, when the league average was about .922), over rising star Igor Shestyorkin (.937).  Znarok apparently knows a thing or two however, as Koskinen duly stopped 98 of 104 shots in Round 1 (.942 sv%) against a Vityaz team that does have some scoring pop.  In front of the goalies, there is further good news for SKA: excellent two-way defenceman Maxim Chudinov should return from injury at some point in the series, although Slava Voinov remains out for now.

As for Dynamo, they had their hands full in a five-game victory over Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod; the first four encounters all went to overtime, while the clinching Game 5 victory required a late empty-goal for a 3-1 final score.  Hardly total dominance despite the relatively short series.

While the vernerable Moscow team scored a respectable 164 goals in the regular season (seventh-most in the KHL), they relied very heavily on the heroics of goalie Alexander Yeryomenko.  The 36-year-old put up a resounding .950 sv% in 37 games, bettered only by the .953 of Traktor Chelyabinsk’s Pavel Francouz.  He did not quite ascend those heights in Round 1, but his .933 sv% was more than adequate to the task.

Part of the reason that Round 1 proved so difficult for Dynamo (beyond the efforts of Torpedo, who are not a bad team at all), was injury, and on that front there are happy tidings.  Captain Alexei Tereshchenko missed the first two games of the series, but then returned to grab the team scoring lead with 2-3-5 in the last three.  And star defenceman Mat Robinson, out since late January, appears on the verge of returning to the lineup.  Even apart from the injury, Robinson had a bit of a down season by his high standards (53 gp, 7-14-21), but he remains a genuine scoring threat from the back, and he carries out his defensive duties well too.

These two teams met twice in the regular season, although they were finished with each other by early December.  SKA won both games, 3-2 in Moscow and 2-1 via a shootout at home, and that may be a rough preview of how this series goes.  Yeryomenko should keep the scores respectable, but Dynamo will need him to steal four games for them, and that is a bit much to expect.  We’ll take the unstoppable force over the immovable object in this one;  SKA in five games or six.

From a goon show to the big show – Vityaz reborn

By Andy Potts –

For many, the big story in the Western Conference this season hasn’t revolved around the battle at the top of the table between CSKA and SKA. Instead it’s been the journey of Vityaz, perennial strugglers, into the playoff places.

Vityaz, one of the founders of the KHL, had never made it into post-season before. In recent seasons, it had got relatively close, remaining in contention until the new year before fading in the final stages. But for many hockey fans, the team’s biggest claim to fame – or notoriety – was its part in a bench-clearing brawl that forced the abandonment of a game against Avangard after setting a new record for PIMs. A cavalcade of hard-hitting players – ‘enforcers’, if you’re thinking positively; ‘goons’ if you’re less enamored of hockey fights – passed through the Moscow Region, and their antics often overshadowed the role that the club played in the development of young players such as Artemy Panarin, now a major player in the NHL and at international level.

So, what made this season a success for Vityaz?

The most change was the arrival of new head coach Valery Belov. A long-time colleague of Zinetula Bilyaletdinov at Ak Bars, there’s little in Russian hockey that Belov hasn’t seen or done – and that includes play-off hockey at Vityaz in the Superleague era. Bringing him back to a club where he has a deep connection, and giving him the freedom to work as head coach in his own right, was a key step.

Belov’s presence had a positive effect on the players he inherited, and none more so than Maxim Afinogenov. Now 37, the forward suddenly hit top form, completing the regular season with 47 (20+27) points, his best ever return since leaving the NHL and joining SKA in 2010. Remaining injury-free, and with his legendary pace seemingly undimmed by the passing years, Afinogenov’s 23-year-old team-mate Miro Aaltonen described him as “a great example for the whole team” in an interview on earlier in the season.

Aaltonen’s arrival was another masterstroke. No relation to the more famous Juhamatti Aaltonen, once of Metallurg Magnitogorsk and Jokerit, and best – if not most fondly remembered – for helping Finland defeat Russia in the quarter-final in Sochi, Miro arrived from Karpat and established himself as an effective center for Vityaz’s first line, scoring 44 points along the way. The club’s oft-overlooked ability to identity and nurture emerging talent delivered once again.

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The other key summer signing was very different. Alexei Kopeikin, 33, came from Sibir, where he had captained the team as it improved steadily to become a serious contender in the Eastern Conference. Deemed surplus to requirements in Novosibirsk, he was released … and set about proving his doubters wrong by scoring 20 goals in a season for the first time in his career on his way to a 51-point haul.

Then there was the goaltending. Harri Sateri, in his second season at the club, once again showed his qualities while understudy Igor Saprykin was suddenly thrust into the spotlight as the season came to a close. An injury to Sateri handed Saprykin the starting role from January 7 until February 16, and the 25-year-old rose to the challenge impressively. Vityaz won eight of the 11 games that Sateri missed; Saprykin finished the season with numbers comparable to his colleague.

As Vityaz heads into the unchartered territory of KHL playoff action, it faces SKA as a massive outsider. But head coach Belov insists that his team can cause an upset.
“Every player needs to bring his A game,” Belov said after Saturday’s game against Admiral. “If we do that, we will win games … and more than one.”

West Conference

1-CSKA v 8-Jokerit
2-SKA v 7-Vityaz
3-Dynamo v 6-Torpedo
4-Lokomotiv v 5-Minsk

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