Champion aims for title repeat

Salavat Yulayev Ufa is victorious again in Russia’s regular season

26.02.2009
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“S. Yu. Champion” – will the Ufa team also win the Russian playoffs again? Photo: Getty Images/Bongarts

UFA, Russia – For the second consecutive season Salavat Yulayev Ufa claimed the top playoff spot in Russia. The team from Bashkortostan is now aiming to repeat its post-season success of last season. As a bonus the reigning champion has also ensured itself another crack at the Champions Hockey League trophy next season.

Powering the way to the top is often easier than retaining a position there. Salavat Yulayev, however, did not look out of place for a single moment during the inaugural KHL season. The team finished six points ahead of Ak Bars Kazan with a whopping 128 points in 56 games, including 43 wins and short just one goal of 200 for the campaign.

When the KHL took off, the Ufa-based team was one of the candidates for a top spot. Other than retaining its title, the team management also set high goals in capturing the CHL title to show the world it is the best team outside the NHL.

While the team is well on track to complete its KHL mission, it had to swallow a tough defeat in efforts to conquer Europe. After going unbeaten in a group with Czech Mountfield Ceske Budejovice and Slovan Bratislava from Slovakia, Salavat had to play domestic rival Metallurg Magnitogorsk in the semi-final. Coming off a 2-1 away win, they were in pole position for the final. But Magnitogorsk scored three unanswered third-period goals en route to a 3-1 win. In the resulting shoot-out series, Salavat fell victim to the steel city team.

One can imagine what the Salavat players were thinking when they witnessed Magnitogorsk being dismantled by the ZSC Lions Zurich (2-2 at home, 0-5 away). “What if we had been there? What if…”

Instead of being heartbroken, the players used their energy to win six out of seven games after the semi-final loss. The run cemented the top position in the KHL and locked home-ice advantage through the post-season.

Having undergone only a few minor roster changes from last season, Salavat was responsible for the most discussed global transfer, signing Alexander Radulov. Radulov almost was a point-per-game skater, finishing with 47 points in 51 games. Alexei Tereshenko (57 points) and Alexander Perezhogin (50 points) completed the Triple-A first line that boosted the team to outscore all other teams. Tereshenko also leads the KHL with an impressive +41 rating.

On defence, former NHLer Oleg Tverdovsky is still a class of his own in the KHL. The blueliner led his defensive teammates in goals (8) and points (21). Last season the 32-year-old was one of the driving forces behind the gold medal machine on both offense and defense. With over 700 NHL games, he is being counted on again as the playoffs are about to start.

Alongside Tverdovsky, Kirill Koltsov and Vitali Proshkin belong to the upper echelon of KHL defenders. Proshkin, member of the gold medal Russian team at the last World Championship, finished with six goals and 27 points and ranks third in the league among defencemen with a +26 rating.

Contrary to most other KHL teams, Salavat does not depend heavily on their import players. Czechs Miroslav Blatak, Michal Mikeska, Leos Cermak and the recently acquired Petr Vampola play important, but not key roles, on the team.

Between the pipes there is a Russian duo. Alexander Eremenko and Vadim Tarasov’s play this season gives no reason to look abroad for help next season.

National team member Eremenko was given the lion’s share of starts this season and notched 27 wins in 36 starts. He ranks second in the KHL for save percentage (93.6) and third in GAA (1.77) for goalies with 30 or more games. His backup is holding his own as well providing coach Sergei Mikhalev ample opportunity to rotate netminders. Tarasov, a former Kazakhstan international, played 23 games posting a respectable 91.1 save percentage along with a 2.18 GAA. Together they conceded just 111 goals this season, just over a pair per game. Only SKA St. Petersburg (101) and Lokomotiv Yaroslavl (110) gave up fewer goals.

However, there’s not much time to celebrate. The KHL playoffs start on March 1 and the competition promises to be stiff with Ak Bars Kazan, Atlant Mytishchi (with KHL top scorer Sergei Mozyakin) and Lokomotiv Yaroslavl leading a group of teams trying to dethrone Salavat. Like last season, Yaroslavl – last year’s runners-up – is bringing their best game to the ice when it most matters while Ak Bars is the king of the road with a league leading 20 away wins this season.

And then there are the annual problem teams as well.

Two traditionally strong teams, Metallurg Magnitogorsk and Avangard Omsk, are struggling on the brink of the playoffs. Metallurg is currently on a downward slide with a four-game losing streak that saw them drop to sixth spot. Avangard has not yet secured a playoff spot. With one game left, they still hold a safe 15th position but they can be overtaken by Severstal Cherepovets and Barys Astana, which have one game in hand and are just one and three points behind. Avangard Omsk wanted to compete for the top spots and the acquisition of Jaromir Jagr only underlined this. But the tragic death of Alexei Cherepanov seems to have paralyzed the team.

From the trio of non-Russian teams in the league, Latvian Dinamo Riga has impressed the most. Backed by a loyal and noisy fan base at home, the team currently occupies 10th place and is enjoying a five-game winning streak. Kazakh team Barys Astana had a more than respectable debut season but is dependant on other teams' results to make it to the playoffs. Regardless of the outcome, Barys possesses perhaps the biggest revelation of the KHL in defenceman Kevin Dallman. The Canadian broke an ancient domestic record for points scored by a defenceman. In 52 games he posted 56 points breaking the record of legendary Vyacheslav Fetisov. The third foreign team, Dynamo Minsk of Belarus, can already plan for next season as they have been eliminated for the post-season. With 49 points, they are 22nd in the 24-team league.

JOERI LOONEN

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