MOSCOW – It’s been a long time since a clash between Dynamo and CSKA could legitimately claim to throw together two of Russia’s leading contenders for honours – but this year’s KHL play-off pitted the Moscow rivals against one another at the Conference semi-final stage. Would CSKA rev up its Rosneft-fuelled renaissance, or would it be Dynamo which took another step closer to defending last year’s title?
CSKA vs Dynamo – it’s a fixture which defines Russian hockey. The world’s most titled team against the nation’s oldest club; the invincible giants of the Soviet era against the first powerhouse of the post-communist ‘90s; a rapidly-reviving contender against the defending champion. And, of course, neighbour against neighbour. Not surprisingly, all the games have been sold out, with ticket staff at both clubs lamenting the current refurbishment of the city’s 14,000-seater Megasport Arena, which might have better accommodated the huge demand for tickets.
Unusually for Russian hockey, the games have brought sizeable contingents from both teams. Generally, the sheer distances involved make travelling to away games difficult – a point amply illustrated by this week’s final for the teams that didn’t make the play-offs and play for Nadezhda Cup, between Dinamo Riga and Amur Khabarovsk. But having two bands of flag-waving, drum-beating ultras facing each other across the arenas has generated a feverish atmosphere – with Dynamo in particular pulling out all the stops to add “the sixth man” on game days at Luzhniki.
As little as a year ago this would have looked like a no-contest. Since the departure of former head coach Vyacheslav Bykov in 2009 (ironically following a heavy play-off defeat against Dynamo), CSKA has fallen on hard times.
Surprisingly, perhaps, the confident 4-0 sweep of Lev Prague in this year’s first round was the famous old club’s first successful play-off series since Bykov’s team overcame Lada Togliatti four years earlier. But the arrival of Rosneft late last season has transformed the Army Club’s prospects and ambitions: the oil giant has pumped up the budget, bankrolled the acquisition of star forward Alexander Radulov (and, during the labour conflict in the NHL, funded the likes of Pavel Datsyuk and Mikhail Grabovsky) and poured some pride back into the flagship of Soviet club hockey.
As the series began, it was no idle boast as Radulov claimed the teams would compete at more or less equal strength.
But things have also changed at Dynamo in that time, with a hasty and controversial merger with 2010 Gagarin Cup finalist MVD bringing the shrewd coaching intellect of Olegs Znaroks to the club – and transforming an erratic bunch of under-achievers into a compact, tough-to-beat unit.
With few obvious star names, apart from Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Bäckström before the NHL had its delayed start of the season, Znaroks has created a team well capable of emulating Ak Bars’ achievement of back-to-back championships.
And recent history was on Dynamo’s side: two previous play-off meetings between the Moscow rivals had seen two series sweeps for the Blue-and-Whites. This time around, CSKA finally managed to win a play-off game against Dynamo but could not avoid another series defeat.
However, the manner of the defeat was very different. In 2009, Dynamo edged game one 2-1, then handed out 7-0 and 5-1 drubbings to advance in a best-of-five sequence. This time, only the 3-0 win in game one saw any clear daylight between the teams: two others went to overtime, CSKA’s sole win came by a 2-1 margin and Dynamo’s decisive 2-0 success in game five was set up by a goal after 52 minutes of tense stalemate.
Prior to the series, famous Russian saxophonist and amateur hockey player Igor Butman – an artist who has been invited to perform the pre-game anthem at CSKA in the past – characterized the two teams in musical terms. CSKA, he said, resembles the Basie band, with its fast tempos and talented soloists; Dynamo is closer to the Glenn Miller orchestra, a smoother style with greater emphasis on the ensemble than the star. And from musical scores to hockey scores, that pattern has also played out on the ice.
Dynamo’s game plan is one of fluid lines allowing any one of five players to pop up anywhere, at either end of the ice. Thus, in game one, it was forward Sergei Soin, who did much of the work in neutralizing Radulov. In game three, meanwhile, d-men Roman Derlyuk and Janne Jalasvaara both scored after pushing up from the blue line to attack the second slot.
The vital, deadlock-breaking goal in game five, less than 10 minutes from the end, came from another defenceman, Fillip Novak. For opponents, it’s harder to guess where the danger comes from; for Dynamo it’s a valuable counter-melody to the razor-sharp counter-attacks which proved so effective at the start of the series.
CSKA, in contrast, struggled to get Radulov to centre stage in the face of tactics designed to starve the virtuoso of opportunities to conjure up another masterpiece. Youngster Dmitri Kugryshev showed flashes of individual flair, especially with his winner in game two, while on occasion the likes of Oleg Kvasha and Patrick Davis conjured openings with their skills. But for all the team’s creativity, it never quite managed to disrupt that Dynamo rhythm.
Good Radulov, bad Radulov?
Following CSKA’s series with Lev, in which Radulov had a hand in seven of his team’s 11 goals, many players from the Czech team concluded that stopping the mercurial forward was the key to stopping CSKA. But the Russian media has long debated the contrast between Radulov the game-winner, capable of inspiring the unlikeliest of victories with breath-taking play, and Radulov the demon, capable of playing his side into trouble or removing himself from the game with needless penalties.
Since Vyacheslav Butsayev replaced Valeri Bragin behind the CSKA bench and began treating the flamboyant forward with a shrewd mix of carrot and stick – dropping him for a few games in the regular season, but awarding him the captaincy for the play-offs – it seemed that the extra responsibility was sitting well with the player.
Apart from posting 1+6=7 in the first four play-off games, he stayed out of the sin bin and enjoyed around 28 minutes on the ice each game. But thus far against Dynamo his effectiveness has been muted: the team’s leading scorer has been youngster Nikolai Prokhorkin, while Radulov has attracted more attention for an incident where he appeared to wave his stick into play while sitting on the bench in game four than his solitary assist in the five games.
The captain, once notoriously media-shy, had diplomatic words to offer after the series: “My first emotion [at the final hooter] was gratitude. To our club, because so much has changed already and much more is being developed. To the fans, because they believed in us and filled the arena to capacity even when we were 3-1 behind in the series.
“I don’t think anyone can say they we didn’t fight, we didn’t give our all in these matches, but Dynamo is a true champion. It was a pleasure to compete with them – but if we’d taken just one chance we might be having a very different conversation.”
Building a legacy
The Blue-and-Whites’ small but crucial edge reflected the two teams’ different stages of development. CSKA, buoyed by its recent cash injection, has made huge strides this season, going from a team struggling to even reach the play-offs to a roster capable of challenging the best.
And, despite the focus on the star names, this has been achieved with a firm accent on the youngsters who have taken from the junior team Krasnaya Armia to back-to-back MHL Grand Finals in the past two seasons. Players like Prokhorkin, 19, Roman Lyubimov, 20, and Kugryshev, 23, are gaining priceless big-game experience on a roster where even the more established big names – Radulov, Sergei Shirokov – are still in their mid-twenties.
The potential offered by these players, plus the opportunities now available to the organization in the transfer market, suggest a bright future ahead of CSKA.
“The team is reborn,” said Shirokov, despite the series defeat. “There are small steps, but we’re moving forward. This season we won our division, and came second in the conference. In another year, everything will be much better.”
For Dynamo, by contrast, stability has been the key. Znaroks has created his team’s template, and has the freedom to bring in players who will deliver his kind of hockey. At both MVD and Dynamo he has had the fans singing his name as much as any player’s – a telling indication of how his teams are built in his own uncompromising, tough-to-beat image.
For all the excitement around Ovechkin and Bäckström during the play-offs, that stellar pair was still expected to fit into a team – and the way in which the less-heralded names of Jakub Petruzalek and Alexei Sopin have emerged with vital play-off goals following the great Trans-Atlantic exodus is testament to Dynamo’s ability to function as a team regardless of the individuals involved.
As defenceman Ilya Gorokhov reflected after the series: “The atmosphere is just like last year – we’ve kept a lot of the old crew. The coaches and the rest of the guys are basically all the same, and we know what to do in the play-offs. This is Dynamo – we always have strong team spirit.”