Category: KHL (page 1 of 4)

Alisauskas moving up

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By Henrik Manninen – IIHF.com

Following in the footsteps of his hometown hero, the KHL becomes the next step in the ascending career of Lithuanian blueliner Nerijus Alisauskas.

When Latvian KHL club Dinamo Riga got the new 2017/18 KHL season underway, it also coincided with the league’s sole Lithuanian representative making his debut at the big stage.

Following a successful off-season try-out, 26-year-old Alisauskas became a surprise late addition to the Dinamo Riga roster. A move which saw him become only the second Lithuanian to grace the KHL after Darius Kasparaitis, who played 26 regular season games for SKA St. Petersburg in 2008/09.

”I am happy to get the chance to play in the KHL and for me it doesn’t matter whether I am first or second. Kasparaitis was also my hero when growing up and I always wanted to achieve the same goals as him,” said Alisauskas, who got his first KHL point on board in his third game of the season with an assist in a 5-3 road win at Barys Astana, Dinamo Riga’s first victory of the season.

When Alisauskas picked up the game at the age of eight back home in the Central Lithuanian small town of Elektrenai, another one of its natives, Kasparaitis had long since left the nest and was at the peak of his powers across the Atlantic suiting up for Pittsburgh Penguins. Dainius Zubrus, the other Lithuanian with an NHL career, also hails from the town.

But while Kasparaitis and Zubrus had honed their skills during the Soviet Union times, Alisauskas was born in another era in the summer of 1991. Brought up in a once again independent Lithuania he was to have a more meandering road towards to the top.

After getting his baptism of fire at senior level in the Belarusian league with Latvian team Liepajas Metalurgs, Alisauskas found himself patrolling the blueline in Germany’s third tier for EV Fussen in 2013/14. Three years of solid displays in Kazakhstan’s top league ensued, before ahead of this season, Dinamo Riga’s head coach Sandis Ozolins came calling to offer Alisauskas an opportunity to shine at the next level.

A fine skater and equipped with a lethal one-timer, Alisauskas possesses qualities he hopes can be fully utilized in his new surroundings as Dinamo Riga aims to avenge for last year’s lacklustre overall display which saw them finish bottom of the pile in the Western Conference.

“I hope we will make the play-offs this season and on a personal level I hope I can grow as a player with as much ice time as possible,” said Alisauskas on a hectic season ahead where a lot will be at stake for both club and country.

In average he got 18:30 of ice time during seven KHL games. Only Canadian Karl Stollery and Latvian Guntis Galvins were on the ice more often among Dinamo Riga defencemen.

With Lithuania hosting the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group B in Kaunas at the end of April next year, big things are in the pipeline for the southern-most Baltic country. Following four consecutive bronze medals at Division IB level under the guidance of head coach Bernd Haake, home advantage is hoped to give the team an extra edge as they aim to propel upwards.

“People are getting more interested in hockey so I am happy about it. As for our team, I believe Lithuania is already ready for the Division IA and this season will be the perfect time to get there,” said Alisauskas.

Alisauskas, who made his senior debut as an 18-year-old at the 2010 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I level, was among many key omissions from last season’s bronze-winning team at the Division IB in Belfast. While the Lithuanian federation hopes to entice big hitters such as Alisauskas, NHL veteran Dainius Zubrus, netminder Mantas Armalis and the Kumeliauskas brothers, Donatas and Tadas, to commit themselves for a gold medal push in Kaunas, perhaps the biggest name of them all is ready to once again step out in the limelight at the age of 45.

Kasparaitis aims at making his national team debut for Lithuania during the Baltic Challenge Cup played on home ice in Klaipeda this November while also offering a chance for Alisauskas to finally line up next to his role model.

“I’ve only practised together with him in the past, so now I can’t wait to play together with him,” said Alisauskas.

KHL 101: A basic guide to the largest league in the world

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By

Stretching from Europe to Asia and employing some of the top players in the world, the KHL is a league you should know a little about.

You can’t be an NHL fan anymore without knowing that the KHL exists. But you sure can get by knowing nothing much about it. Rumours, myths and stereotypes persist, and many fans, even fans of teams like the Leafs with multiple former KHL players, are not sure what the league is all about.

It’s in Russia, right? And the names on the jerseys are all in Cyrillic, and no one speaks English or ever gets paid. In Soviet Russia joke makes you. Right? Well, no.

Let’s tackle those persistent myths first.

The KHL, short for Kontinental Hockey League, is mostly Russian, but it has teams in seven countries and offers up its website in Russian, English and Chinese.

Because there are teams all over the non-Russian speaking parts of Europe and now in China, and because the games are televised widely, the names on the jerseys have always been in Latin script. They generally use a different transliteration for the Russian names to what the NHL uses. That doesn’t make one “right” and one “wrong”, but it does lead to confusion because the English-language twitter account and website don’t always use the same forms.

Nikita Zaitsev was Zaytsev on his jersey, but not on the website. Vadim Shipachyov is about to become Vadim Shipachev.

The rumours of money problems in the KHL are partly true, and partly exaggerated. There is a plan in place now to deal with the issue, and it’s complicated, but likely will succeed in stabilizing a league that expanded rapidly and then faced a catastrophic drop in the value of the ruble that plunged even some very well run teams into chaos.

The KHL is not about to collapse as many Canadian and American media like to report every summer as the league deals with delinquent teams. The fans gleefully imagining strip mining the league and “getting all those good players” while ignoring the rest as irrelevant aren’t going to get their wish.

The Soviet days are long past, and while many remnants of the old Soviet league that formed the genesis of the KHL linger on, mostly in team names, the league is a collection of individual businesses, just like the NHL. Some teams are very, very wealthy, and some are not, just like the NHL.

Now for some details.

Structure

The league stretches over a huge portion of the Earth, and travel times are onerous in some cities.

Scroll down to the interactive KHL Geography map and see the spread of teams from Slovan in Brataslava, Slovakia in the west to, not Kunlun Red Star in Beijing, like you might have expected, but Amur in Khabarovsk, Russia. That’s the scope of the league.

West Conference

CSKA (Moscow, Russia)
Dinamo Minsk (Belarus)
Dinamo Riga (Latvia)
HC Dynamo Moscow (Russia)
HC Sochi (Russia)
Jokerit (Helsinki, Finland)
Lokomotiv (Yaroslavl, Russia)
SKA (St. Petersburg, Russia)
Severstal (Cherepovets, Russia)
Slovan (Brataslava, Slovakia)
Spartak (Moscow, Russia)
Torpedo (Nizhny Novgorod, Russia)
Vityaz (Moscow Region, Russia)

East Conference

Admiral (Vladivostok, Russia)
Ak Bars (Kazan, Russia)
Amur (Khabarovsk, Russia)
Avangard (Omsk Region, Russia)
Avtomobilist (Yekaterinburg, Russia)
Barys (Astana, Kazakhstan)
Kunlun Red Star (Beijing, China)
Lada (Togliatti, Russia)
Metallurg Magnitogorsk (Russia)
Neftekhimik (Nizhnekamsk, Russia)
Salavat Yulaev (Ufa, Russia)
Sibir (Novosibirsk Region, Russia)
Traktor (Chelyabinsk, Russia)
Ugra (Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia)

That’s a lot of teams. It’s too many, and eventually the league realized they had grown to large. They cut a few this summer, teams that were underperforming in attendance or losing too much money. The plan for the future is to cut two or three teams per summer for the next few years. This is supposed to be decided primarily on attendance, but other factors such as financing will be taken into account.

At the same time new teams will be added. The expectation is that these teams will be in China or Europe.

Along with this contraction and expansion to better markets, a salary cap mechanism with some teeth in it will be brought in, with the goal to distribute the pay to the players in a better way. This post has a great deal of detail on the situation and expands on how the payment system will be altered, and how contraction will occur. Ultimately, the goal is to stabilize at 24 teams that are successful.

Demographics

The KHL tries to have teams in countries outside Russia keep their national character. Jokerit’s players are mostly Finns, Dinamo Riga is mostly Latvian, etc. This is less easy with Kunlun Red Star, and the makeup of that team is a work in progress.

But the absorption of European teams from existing leagues, like Jokerit, and the overall pace of expansion has led to large numbers of foreign players on the Russian-based teams. Once a rarity, Canadians and Americans are becoming more prominent in the league.

Elite Prospects lists 15 countries of origin for players signed to the KHL for the coming season. Most, 632, are Russian, but there are 47 Canadians, 27 Czechs, 24 Swedes and 16 Americans. From countries with teams in the league, there are 42 Finns, 32 Belarusians, 34 Kazakhs and 30 Latvians.

For a lot of teams, English is widely spoken as a second language, and the more that is true, the more players from countries like Canada and Sweden will go to the KHL to play. Mike Keenan might be the most famous non-Russian coach in the KHL to NHL fans, but he’s not the only one. For a full rundown on who is behind the bench on KHL teams, Patrick Conway has a list of them at his blog sorted by division.

You say Dinamo. I say Dynamo. (Actually, it’s  Динамо.) Are we calling this whole thing off or not?

What’s with all the Dynamo teams anyway?

Wikipedia says that in 1923, the Soviet Union formed the Dynamo Sports Club societies to form part of the physical education system of the nation. The idea was exported to many Soviet client states in Eastern Europe and the name has remained on many surviving clubs all over Europe.

The KHL has three: Riga, Minsk and Moscow, and while the clubs aren’t related now, or state owned, they share a ideological past.

The other main sponsor of sports clubs and teams in the Soviet Union was the army, made famous by the Red Army team in the seventies. That team is now CSKA. SKA is also a military team.

In industrial areas, clubs were often sponsored by the local state-run industry. So you get Traktor, Avtobomilist, Lada, Metallurg and Lokomotiv all named after the local product or industry.

The KHL has also ended up with two teams named for the snow leopard. Both Ak Bars Kazan and Barys Astana take their names from the local word for that central Asian animal.

Season

The KHL season begins in the summer. Pre-season games begin in July, with regular season action starting in August. The playoffs are in the spring, with the Gagarin Cup handed out a couple of weeks before the IIHF World Championships in May.

The KHL is taking an Olympic break from late January through most of February this year, making that league an attractive destination this year for players hoping to be named to their national teams. They have cut the schedule to 56 games to help make that happen.

The playoffs begin a few days after the return from the break.

Playoffs

The playoff format is very familiar to NHL fans. The top eight teams in each conference playoff until a champion remains, and then they play for the cup.

It’s a very attractive cup.

Farm teams

The VHL is the farm team league, and is somewhat analogous to the AHL. The KHL is made up of teams, many of which are older than the league itself, that are part of a European-style sports club system. The club may have a soccer team, a hockey team, a bandy team and any number of other divisions, including women’s teams, junior teams and a VHL team.

The VHL is run by the Russian Hockey Federation, not the KHL. As the KHL has contracted, and will continue to do so, the VHL is absorbing some of those teams, while its own unprofitable teams are either dropped down a division or dissolved.

The dissolution this year of Dynamo Moscow’s VHL club, after winning the championship last year, was due to internal money problems at that club after a change of ownership. Eventually, the KHL team restructured to the point they can continue.

The MHL

The MHL is the junior or U20 league, and most of the teams in the league are feeder teams for the KHL system. Unlike in North America, the junior system in Europe keeps a young player within a club from a young age to the top team, if she’s lucky. Many top players move up at around 16 to better teams. Yegor Korshkov moved from Kazakhstan, where his father played, to Yaroslavl, and has played in the Lokomotiv system ever since.

Style of Play and League Strength

Everyone asks this: What’s the playing style like and how is it different to the NHL. This along with where does the league fit with other leagues is a very hard question to answer, and is controversial. Some North American fans sneer in angry disdain at the idea that the KHL is better than the AHL.

First, imagine answering this question the other way around. How good is the NHL? What do they play like? Are you going to answer based on the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Colorado Avalanche, the New Jersey Devils or the Chicago Blackhawks? Is the NHL fast or slow, offensive or defensive, good or bad?

It is undisputed by anyone but the biggest homer fan of another league that the KHL is the best league in Europe. But the worst teams in the KHL might well be nowhere near able to compete in the Swiss league. The best teams, the very few elite top playoff teams that have money and top players are, in my opinion, far and away better than any AHL team.

The KHL is, in general, a faster, more shooting and passing based game than you see in North America. For players coming over to the NHL, some things are very different, and I’ll quote myself from last summer’s Top 25 Under 25 comments on Nikita Zaitsev.

Now, my main concern about him: that easy glide up the neutral zone with the puck. He’s a good skater, handles the puck well, but he’s always done this on wide ice, with opposing teams who tend to fall back more and concede the zone if not the o-zone entry itself. That is not how NHL teams play. Well, the Stars do, but imagine hitting the New Jersey Devils neutral zone meat grinder when you think you’re just out for a skate? Or the Kings or the Red Wings or it just goes on and on.

When CSKA failed against Magnitka, it was because Magnitka pressured early in the neutral zone and stripped the puck off of them. This is systems stuff, and I am not saying that he cannot play how Babcock wants him to. I’m saying I don’t know because CSKA never did.

With very few exceptions, the neutral zone is easier to get through in the KHL than it is in the NHL. This is also an issue with offensively-high-flying AHL teams when they hit one of the elite level teams that defend well. So it’s partly a question of skills gap in a league that’s too large, and also a style of play that evolved on bigger ice.

One other thing I have noted over the years is that players with NHL experience shoot more. Whether this is a style difference or a skills-gap is, again, hard to say, but it looks like the general KHL style is to pass the puck until a higher-percentage play opens up.

Smaller players can have huge success in the KHL, particularly small defencemen who aren’t quite good enough for the NHL. The idea that there is no physical play in the KHL is wrong, however, board battles and corner work are much less important than in North American hockey.

Older players also succeed in the KHL. Last season a clutch of 35 year olds were leading the league in most categories outside of goaltending. The length of the season and the number of breaks and days off might explain that. 60 games with several week-long breaks is a lot easier than an NHL grind.

If you want a look at the KHL without navigating their site to pay for the games, although they are inexpensive, watch the Olympics this year. You’ll see KHL players on every top team, and you might be very surprised at how much fun they are to watch. Just, you know, be prepared for Russia to win it all.

Russian Ice Hockey Federation to wage ruthless war on doping abuse

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By Tass.com

The Russian Hockey Federation (RHF) will provide all conditions to make the sport of ice hockey healthy and clean of doping, RHF President Vladislav Tretiak said on Wednesday.

Russia-based Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) announced on Tuesday that the doping sample of three-time World Champion Danis Zaripov tested positive for prohibited performance enhancing substances. He was suspended by the IIHF for the period of two years, until May 22, 2019.

“Doping abuse in ice hockey is a very rare case,” Tretiak said on air of Rossiya-24 television channel. “The key task for the RHF is to offer all necessary conditions to make the sport of ice hockey clean and healthy.”

“Today thousands of boys come playing ice hockey and we will do everything possible to safeguard them from doping,” Tretiak, who is also the legendary Soviet goaltender indicted in the NHL Hall of Fame, said. “We will have no mercy fighting against this evil.”

 “All cases of investigations and the following decisions to impose sanctions, including the case of Danis Zaripov, are strictly in the competence of the IIHF Disciplinary Committee in line with WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) Code,” Tretiak said.

“Neither the RHF nor KHL could in any way influence this process,” Tretiak, who is also the legendary Soviet goaltender indicted in the NHL Hall of Fame, added.

Russia’s 36-year-old forward Zaripov signed earlier this month a deal on his transfer from KHL’s Metallurg Magnitogorsk club to Ak Bars, where, according to the contract, Zaripov intended to play for the next two seasons.

Olympic Games

 A decision made by the US-based National Hockey League to pull out of the 2018 Winter Olympics will not be a problem for the Russian national team at the Games, he went on.

The NHL announced in early April that it had decided against altering its schedule for the 2017-2018 season, meaning that international players bound by contracts with NHL clubs would not be able to leave next year to join their national teams to play at the 2018 Winter Olympic Games, which are scheduled to take place in South Korea’s PyeongChang next year on February 9-25. Many Russian ice hockey stars are currently playing in various NHL clubs.

“NHL is a commercial enterprise, which is not a member of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) and which has no separate agreements on cooperation with the International Olympic Committee (IOC),” Tretiak said in an interview with Rossiya-24 television channel. “A decision whether NHL players would participate or would not is made by the league alone.”

“Obviously the players wish to play at the Olympics and the NHL Players’ Association supports them,” Tretiak said. “However, after long and complicated negotiations the league made a decision and repeatedly voiced it since then that it would not be participating in the 2018 Olympic Games.”

“Undoubtedly the RHF, just like many other national federations with a big representation in NHL, was interested that all of the best players would go to the Olympics no matter what league they are playing for,” Tretiak, who is also the legendary Soviet goaltender indicted in the NHL Hall of Fame, said.

“However, the decision was made and we cannot influence this process,” according to the RHF chief. “At the same time, this decision will not be a problem for the Russian national team.”

“The team will be made up of players from the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) and we will do everything possible to provide for their successful performance in South Korea,” Tretiak added.

The National Hockey League Players’ Association lashed out at NHL’s April decision calling it shortsighted. The association criticized the NHL’s authorities for not only prohibiting its players for playing on the international arena, but for building obstacles for the game of ice hockey on the whole.

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

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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

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By KHL.ru

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

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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

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By KHL.ru

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

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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!

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

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By KHL.ru

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 IIHF.com 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

By KHL.ru

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

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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.

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