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.