ST. PETERSBURG – SKA St. Petersburg set a new record for consecutive victories in the Kontinental Hockey League, recording its 19th win last week and rolling on to number 20 on Monday.
Friday’s 3-2 home victory against Sibir Novosibirsk proved slightly more nervous than SKA might have expected. Rolling back into St. Petersburg on the back of 6-1 road wins at Lokomotiv Yaroslavl and Salavat Yulayev Ufa, the Gagarin Cup holder was the hot favourite to despatch Sibir for the second time in two weeks.
But the Siberians were in no mood to feature as cannon fodder. In the first period, they frustrated the host, limiting SKA to nine shots in a goalless 20 minutes. In the second, an early power-play chance broke the deadlock; Sergei Plotnikov and Dinar Khafizullin opened a 2-0 advantage. Still, though, Sibir doggedly stayed in the game. Jonas Enlund pulled a goal back and it took a sharp wrist shot from Yevgeni Ketov to get SKA’s game-winner with eight minutes left. Despite a late goal from Sibir’s Simon Onerud, SKA held on and overtook Avangard’s 18-game run from 2010/11. There wasn’t much time to celebrate: SKA was back in action on Monday, and won 4-0 at Spartak Moscow to bring up its 20th success.
Avangard’s record streak was inspired by Jaromir Jagr. The run, impressive as it was, included five games that went to overtime or shootouts. SKA is overloaded with inspirational talents; when one distinguished international star rests, another is ready to step up. The 19-game streak has produced 16 regulation victories; the biggest margin along the way was a crushing 9-1 demolition of Yugra Khanty-Mansisk.
Offence from all areas
Unusually, SKA’s victory over Sibir did not feature goals from its free-scoring forwards. At present, Nikita Gusev, Ilya Kovalchuk, Sergei Shirokov and Pavel Datsyuk occupy four of the top five places in the KHL scoring charts. The team’s tally of 88 goals this season is far ahead of the rest: Avangard Omsk’s 55 from 18 games is the next best.
The individual stats are no less impressive. Gusev had 28 (12+16) from 19 games, Kovalchuk 16+10=26. Barys Astana’s Nigel Dawes muscles into third place, but Shirokov (23) and Datsyuk (22) round out the top five. Then there’s Patrik Hersley, the Swedish defenceman, weighing in with 19 (10+9) from the blue line, another league leading return.
It’s a similar story at the other end. SKA has allowed 25 goals in 19 games; Jokerit Helsinki, with 22, has conceded fewer, but the Finns have played just 14 games so far. Goalie Igor Shestyorkin, vying with CSKA Moscow’s Ilya Sorokin for the #1 role at the Olympics, has the best save percentage (95.9%), the best GAA (1.08) and his fourth shutout of the season at Spartak puts him on top of that category as well. It speaks much for the calibre of SKA’s defensive unit that the absence of Vyacheslav Voinov through injury early in the season barely caused a ripple in the team’s progress.
What they are saying
Head coach Znarok, who said in pre-season that his team’s potential was ‘frightening’, is not indulging in premature congratulations. After Friday’s record-breaking win, he focused on the team’s slow start to the game and the ‘careless’ goals allowed in the third period. That’s been a consistent part of his comments; after that 9-1 win at Yugra, Znarok warned of ‘serious errors’ and suggested his team was fortunate not to have been punished.
For Datsyuk, 19 wins was only the start. “Right now, our record is not complete,” he told Sport-Express. “We can still keep on winning. I’m sure we’ll keep on playing this way. I’d have liked more home games [early in the season], playing in front of this support makes it easier on the ice.” Team-mate Viktor Tikhonov was also looking forward to more success. “Of course, it feels good right now,” he said. “It’s not so often you get to set a record like this, to be part of an occasion like this. But the most important thing is to keep going, and extend the streak.”
Shirokov, meanwhile, warned against complacency. “I wouldn’t say we were affected by the record,” he told championat.com. “Records are part of history, they will remain for some time, at least until the next season.
“We’re working hard. From the outside maybe it looks simple, but look at how our guys go after the puck, how they get in the way of shots, how the injuries start to crop up. It’s not easy, and it deserves respect. We’ll try to keep going.”
Can anyone stop SKA?
Oleg Znarok’s team has been so dominant that headline writers are asking whether SKA might go unbeaten throughout the entire season. With 41 games to go, that is surely fanciful, but it is indicative of just how impressive the Petersburg team has looked this season. With the nucleus of Russia’s national team on the roster, and Znarok combining roles for club and country, there are echoes of the all-powerful CSKA Moscow teams of the Soviet era
That group of Army Men, under the guidance of Viktor Tikhonov, holds the old Soviet record for consecutive victories. In 1983/84, CSKA began the season with 39 wins. The current CSKA roster, defeated in the season opener against SKA on 21st August, gets a chance for revenge on 23rd October.
One man likely to be rooting for the Muscovites that day is Kirill Fastovski, general manager of Sibir. When asked about SKA’s streak, his response was blunt: “How can it be interesting [when one team wins so much]?” he told Sovietski Sport.
However, if SKA is to turn its current record-breaking form into a third Gagarin Cup in four seasons, something will have to change. In the KHL era, no team topping the regular season table has gone on to triumph in the playoffs. Only CSKA, beaten by Metallurg Magnitogorsk in 2016, has reached the Grand Final. It may be a historical quirk, but for many fans of SKA’s rivals, it is starting to feel like a rare cause for optimism.