MOSCOW – The KHL play-offs get underway on Friday, while Russian hockey continues to come to terms with its Sochi Olympic failure. Not surprisingly, many of the storylines that are likely to dominate the coming weeks of competition have strong echoes of what we saw beside the Black Sea last month.
Individual vs team
The regular season scoring stats make for intriguing reading – and seem to split the league into East and West. The top five point scorers all play in the east, and all represent either Metallurg Magnitogorsk or Barys Astana. It’s a similar story for the leaders in goals and assists, with only Sibir’s Jori Lehtera breaking the Magnitka-Barys stranglehold.
Ak Bars boasts the top goalie, Emil Garipov, and the top-scoring D-men almost all play in the east. Only SKA St. Petersburg’s Maxim Chudinov (+30, placing fourth for plus/minus) and CSKA Moscow’s Deron Quint (fifth among top-scoring defencemen with 28 points) challenge the Eastern dominance of the individual prizes.
Yet, as we saw in Sochi, individual greatness is rarely a match for solid team-work. Dynamo Moscow has demonstrated this in the past two seasons – and Oleg Znarok has led his team to the top of the regular season table without relying heavily on any individual star.
Even SKA, for whom Ilya Kovalchuk is arguably the biggest name in the league, has shared the points around – young Artemi Panarin has matched Kovi point for point throughout the season, Roman Cervenka is close on their heels. The final destiny of the Gagarin Cup looks set to be decided when the most reliable team players come head to head with the most dangerous individuals, and the outcome could well illuminate one of the underlying questions in contemporary Russian hockey.
Zinetula Bilyaletdinov was predictably ‘eaten alive’ following Russia’s Olympic failure, and left his post on Wednesday. Within a day it was announced that he was heading back to Ak Bars as vice-president and GM. The Kazan team expects big things every season, but recent play-off campaigns have fallen short of the high standards of Bilyaletindov’s glory years in Tatarstan. Can the return of a club talisman inspire a push towards a third Gagarin Cup triumph, or is Bill in for a second dose of disappointment?
The foreign legion
For the first time in KHL history there will be two non-Russian teams in the Western Conference semi-final, while Kazakhstan’s Barys Astana is seeded in the East. Meanwhile, Iron Mike Keenan’s Metallurg Magnitogorsk looks like a strong contender for the big prize. With SKA St. Petersburg, coached by Finland’s Jussi Jalonen, also in the mix, this could be the first time the Gagarin Cup is won by a non-Russian coach. With debate already raging about who should take charge of the national team, seeing Russia’s top prize in foreign hands could add to the angst about the country’s flagship sport.
Justifying the hype
Kovalchuk and CSKA’s Alexander Radulov both faced their share of criticism for Russia’s Olympic disappointment. Now the two go head-to-head in the opening play-off games as SKA faces its Army rival CSKA in round one in the West. Both men have delivered solid scoring this season, but neither has quite lived up to his high profile in the game. As questions fly about the Russian stars’ ability to deliver in the biggest games, both players have a great chance to silence their critics by tearing up this series.
Medvescak Zagreb and Admiral Vladivostok have both reached the play-offs in their debut KHL seasons – but both have had contrasting campaigns. Medvescak began in fine style, and by late October was pushing towards the top of the Western Conference. Mark French’s roster of North Americans may lack experience in this league, but it adapted fast and booked a play-off spot early. With Lev Prague to come in a best-of-seven series, there’s a realistic prospect of advancing through an evenly-matched contest.
Admiral, meanwhile, had things tougher. The departure of head coach Hannu Jortikka midway through the campaign and the departure of top scorer Enver Lisin to CSKA kept the Far Eastern fleet under pressure until it anchored itself in the play-offs on the last day of the regular season. Realistically Metallurg Magnitogorsk should have too much firepower to prolong the fairy story, but realistically this roster of hastily assembled cast-offs should never have made it this far. Hopes remain high, but expectations are still somewhat modest.
This time last year a meteorite over Chelyabinsk threatened the staging of Traktor’s first-round play-off games at its home arena. This time it’s Donbass Donetsk which has been sweating over its venue as political uncertainty sweeps through Ukraine. The KHL decided on Wednesday that Donbass could host Dinamo Riga on its own ice in round one, just as Traktor was ultimately able to face Barys as planned a year earlier.
The KHL play-offs start in the West on Friday. Defending champion Dynamo Moscow faces Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, SKA plays CSKA in an army derby and there are two cross-border encounters as Lev takes on Medvescak and Donbass welcomes Dinamo Riga.
On Saturday the Eastern Conference joins, with Metallurg Magnitogorsk facing Admiral, Barys playing Avtomobilist, Ak Bars taking on Sibir and Salavat Yulayev welcoming Torpedo. Each series is played until a team reaches four victories.