The quest for Gagarin

This year’s KHL play-offs get underway

20.02.2016
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Green clash: Salavat Yulayev Ufa (pictured: Alexander Nesterov) against Ak Bars Kazan (pictured. Stepan Zakharshuk) is one of the playoff pairings to look forward to in the Kontinental Hockey League. Photo: Maxim Bogodvid / RIA Novosti

Sunday sees the start of the KHL post-season with SKA St. Petersburg looking to improve on a stuttering show in the regular season and make a strong defence of its title. As always, the contest throws up some intriguing questions – here are some of the key issues for KHL Season 8.

Duelling goalies – Sorokin vs Murygin

In any other season, 20-year-old prospect Ilya Sorokin, the latest star to emerge from the production line at Metallurg Novokuznetsk, would have been the big news between the piping. His 10 shutouts and a GAA of just 1.06 for CSKA Moscow represents a superb performance for a young player in his first full season at a club with serious title ambitions – and went a long way to making the veteran Swedish international Viktor Fasth into a bit-part player in Moscow. CSKA went on to retain its regular season title and is looking to claim its first ever Gagarin Cup with Sorokin backstopping the Army Men.

Yet he ended up taking second place in many eyes thanks to the record-breaking form of Lokomotiv Yaroslavl’s Alexei Murygin. For many years a journeyman at Amur and Metallurg Magnitogorsk, Murygin flourished with the Railwaymen. His 13 shutouts set a new KHL record, his 302 minutes and 11 seconds without conceding was just 3:45 shy of an all-time Russian mark. From nowhere, he found himself talked up as a serious international prospect.

The two are unlikely to go head to head before the Conference final but if goalies do indeed win championships it would be no surprise to see either of these celebrating come the end of April.

Reshaping SKA

Hockey in Petersburg is often something of a soap opera, and SKA’s Gagarin Cup defence has never been short of drama. The champagne had barely been quaffed when head coach Vyacheslav Bykov announced his departure; incoming supremo Andrei Nazarov brought his abrasive approach with him and was gone by the end of the September. The club brought in Stanley Cup winner Slava Voinov from the LA Kings after he fell foul of the law in the U.S., notorious tough guy Yevgeni Artyukhin was signed up and shipped out... and amid all the off-ice action there was even time for some hockey.

The problem for Sergei Zubov, currently behind the bench, is that all that turmoil led to a disjointed season. Vadim Shipachyov, Ilya Kovalchuk and Yevgeni Dadonov maintained their strong form despite the departure of Artemi Panarin to Chicago. Steve Moses, whose return to the States misfired, joined up mid-season, as did Sergei Shirokov from Avangard Omsk, so there’s no shortage of options on offence. But at the back things have stuttered along: 149 goals allowed in 60 games points up this team’s weakness – nobody in the Western Conference play-offs conceded more. With miserly Loko first up in post-season, it’s clear where Zubov’s immediate concern will lie.

The rise of Sochi

Big-time hockey is heading back to the Olympic arena in Sochi. After a quiet debut season in the KHL, HK Sochi made a much bigger noise this time. And, after a campaign which saw 13 clubs change coaches in mid-stream, the team from the Black Sea looks set to benefit from some rare stability behind the bench. Vyacheslav Butsayev was trusted to continue his work after last season, despite being swept by CSKA in round one. He, in turn, kept faith in many of his players and was rewarded by steady improvements in scoring from Andre Petersson and Andrei Kostitsyn.

There were also changes at the back. Vastly experienced goalie Konstantin Barulin joined the club, while ex-Sibir man Renat Mamashev finished the season with a +15 co-efficient. These were less impressive, however, with Sochi matching SKA’s 149 tally on goals allowed. The first-round clash with Dynamo Moscow is intriguing – two of Sochi’s players, Mikhail Anisin and Janne Jalasvaara, won the Gagarin Cup with the Muscovites, while the Blue-and-Whites replaced Harijs Vitolins with Sergei Oreshkin in December and finished the season strongly with a new-look, youthful roster in the venue for the upcoming IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship.

Western Conference schedule:

CSKA Moscow vs Slovan Bratislava

Jokerit Helsinki vs Torpedo Nizhni Novgorod

Lokomotiv Yaroslavl vs SKA St. Petersburg

HK Sochi vs Dynamo Moscow

Best-of-seven series. Games start on 21st February and continue every second day.

The first-round final

The ‘Green Derby’ between Salavat Yulayev and Ak Bars is always a classic KHL clash – and in the play-offs its bigger than ever. This time, as if it was needed, there’s some added spice as two of the most respected thinkers in Russian hockey go head-to-head behind the bench. Not surprisingly, commentators in Russia are suggesting it’s like having the grand final in round one.

The battle, of course, pits Zinetula Bilyaletdinov of Ak Bars against Igor Zakharkin of Salavat Yulayev. The former is leading his team through something of a transition: the departure of influential D-men Ilya Nikulin and Yevgeni Medvedev in the summer prompted a substantial turnaround in playing staff. It hasn’t always worked out: Ak Bars ultimately finished fifth in the East, but had to wait until three games to go before confirming its play-off place after a five-game losing streak late in the campaign. Along the way there have been complaints that not all the new faces are up to standard, while Justin Azevedo has been way out in front with his 53 points, 16 clear of Oscar Moller.

Zakharkin, meanwhile, came to Ufa with a global advisory role but quickly found himself replacing Anatoli Yemelin after a slow start to the season. The long-term sidekick of Bykov, he was part of the coaching team that won the Gagarin Cup here in 2011 and with SKA last season, but this is his first taste in the KHL of the head coach’s role in its own right. Zakharkin got off to a great start with nine wins in his first 10 games, and he got Linus Omark playing some great hockey following his move from Jokerit. However, consistency remained an issue on the way to a fourth-placed finish in the East.

Mozyakin’s record hopes

Sergei Mozyakin became only the third player ever to score 400 goals in the top level of Russian hockey and by the end of the regular season his total of 413 was second only to super sniper Boris Mikhailov.

Mikhailov, a USSR legend, says he’s looking forward to handing over his crown when the time comes – but it would take a superb post-season for Mozyakin to get there in these play-offs. With 15 goals needed to match the mark, Metallurg Magnitogorsk’s captain would need to improve on his best-ever Gagarin Cup campaign. Since that was a 13-goal return that helped Magnitka lift the trophy in 2014, it’s fair to assume both he and the team would have plenty to celebrate if he makes it this time around.

Magnitka was another of the 13 teams to change coaches this season: Iron Mike Keenan was moved upstairs in mid-October and replaced by Ilya Vorobyov. Vorobyov, in his first head coaching role, took the team to second in the East and nurtured the emergence of Wojtek Wolski as a big-scoring addition to the first line after he opted to refresh the familiar Moyzakin-Kovar-Zaripov troika of recent seasons.

And fifth shall be first...

The balance of power between the two conferences seems to have shifted decisively towards the West this season. Avangard Omsk topped the Eastern Conference table with 106 points – but was only fifth on the combined KHL table behind the top four on the other side of the Urals. The departure of popular playmaker Sergei Shirokov to St. Petersburg during the season was another sign that the lure of Siberian hockey might be declining for some players.

Avangard still has reasons for optimism in the play-offs: familiar offence leaders like Alexander Perezhogin and Vladimir Sobotka have been in decent form while D-man Michal Kempny has looked the part in his debut KHL season. But with little to choose between the leaders in the East, Yevgeni Kornoukhov’s men will face a serious scrap to reach a Gagarin Cup final where they are almost certain to be rated as outsiders. After teams from the East had the edge for much of this century, the season suggests the strongest shift yet towards the Western Conference.

Eastern Conference schedule:

Avangard Omsk vs Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk

Metallurg Magnitogorsk vs Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg

Sibir Novosibirsk vs Admiral Vladivostok

Salavat Yulayev Ufa vs Ak Bars Kazan

Best-of-seven series. Games start on 22nd February and continue every second day.

ANDY POTTS

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