MOSCOW – The play-offs in the Kontinental Hockey League are set to start on Wednesday and the closing stages of the regular season have been dominated by transfer action.
NHL players have returned to North America after the end of the labour conflict, and coaches have been tweaking their rosters in the hope of unearthing a signing who can match the impact of last season’s play-off hero Mikhail Anisin. Here’s a look at five contenders.
This time last year, Mikhail Anisin was settling into life at Dynamo Moscow and preparing for a play-off campaign which would end with him setting a post-season KHL scoring record and raising the Gagarin Cup. One year on, with the final round of regular season games in sight, who might emulate Anisin’s successful move from an outsider and have a shot at the glory game?
Mikhail Varnakov (SKA, ex Torpedo)
At the start of the season, the KHL’s leaderboard was dominated by Torpedo forwards, and Mikhail Varnakov – the son of the U20 national team coach of the same name – was perhaps the pick of a free-scoring line which also included Martin Thörnberg and Dmitri Makarov. But the Nizhni Novgorod team could not sustain its early form, and as its play-off hopes faded Varnakov (26+14=40 from 47 games) headed to regular season champion SKA.
In St. Petersburg he has some big skates to fill – head coach Jussi Jalonen was handed something of a headache when the NHL finally started and the likes of Ilya Kovalchuk and Vladimir Tarasenko went west. But the team has kept on winning and Varnakov, with three points in his first three games, can expect a good tilt at the play-offs. SKA begins its campaign against Atlant Mytishi.
Stefan Ruzicka (Salavat Yulayev, ex Spartak)
As one of the Eastern Conference’s traditional powerhouses, Salavat Yulayev Ufa had suffered a disappointing season by its standards up until the turn of the year – but 2013 has shown far greater promise. The team, under new management after Vladimir Yurzinov Jr, was handed temporary charge in place of Vener Safin on December 24, has won eight out of 12 in the New Year, and Ruzicka’s arrival from struggling Spartak has coincided with a spurt of four wins from the last six, including thumping victories over conference leaders Avangard (6-1) and Ak Bars (5-0).
The skillful Slovak forward has settled in quickly, picking up 2+3=5 in those six appearances, playing in a line with the experienced Sergei Zinoviev and the reliable Denis Khlystov. Meanwhile, with a first-round meeting against an out-of-sorts Metallurg Magnitogorsk, Salavat Yulayev will be hopeful that its late-season form can lead to a big play-off push.
Nikolai Zherdev (Ak Bars, ex Atlant)
Vastly experienced Russian international Zherdev suffered an unhappy time at Atlant Mytishi – and his departure seems to have benefited both parties. The play-offs seemed a distant dream for the Moscow suburban outfit when he and Swedish star Jonas Andersson left early in January. Since then, Atlant has hit a winning streak which won it an unlikely play-off place, while Zherdev was released to Kazan, taking his 37-point haul with him to bolster Ak Bars’ title tilt.
Ak Bars was one of few leading clubs to shun the influx of NHLers, recalling some unhappy experiences in the previous lock-out, and Valeri Belov’s roster has been impressively consistent all season. The Tatar giant is always capable of competing for top honours, and that could give Zherdev his chance to make a big impact on the play-offs. Round one sees a Tatarstan derby meeting with Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk.
Mikhail Anisin (Severstal, ex Dynamo Moscow)
Oddly enough, the former Dynamo and Vityaz forward could repeat last year’s trick. Following his play-off heroics, like with the Moscow club quickly turned sour for the 25-year-old forward. The summer brought a protracted contract dispute, and by the end of 2012 he was at loggerheads with head coach Olegs Znaroks, claiming he was being deliberately starved of ice time to ensure he couldn’t earn some of the bigger bonuses. Dynamo’s management saw things differently, and Alexander Ovechkin weighed into the debate to claim that Znaroks had done nothing wrong, prompting Anisin’s move to Severstal after an unimpressive stint in the capital.
In Cherepovets, reunited with former Vityaz coach Andrei Nazarov, Anisin managed to equal his Dynamo points tally in just 11 games, and the Western Conference outsider has booked a play-off spot with something to spare. Potentially, the opening round could have pit Anisin against Dynamo in a provocative grudge match, but instead Severstal will have Lokomotiv Yaroslavl as the first obstacle. And the gap in class between the top four and the rest of the west suggests it’s unlikely he’ll be going for back-to-back titles this time.
Jakub Petruzalek (Dynamo Moscow, ex Amur)
In place of Anisin, Dynamo has signed up Czech forward Petruzalek. A year ago he was the toast of the Far East, helping Hannu Jortikka lead his Khabarovsk outpost into its first ever KHL play-off. This season, missing compatriot Petr Vrana up front and the solid defence of Mikko Mäenpää and goalie Jan Lasak, Amur has slipped back to its traditional basement position.
However, Petruzalek’s move to Moscow has not come at an ideal moment. After a strong showing early in the season, reinforced by the skills of Ovechkin and Nicklas Bäckström, the defending champion has come down with the Christmas decorations. Eight defeats in 14 games since December 28 is far from championship form and the blue-and-white roster currently seems to lack a ‘go-to’ guy to break down obstinate opposition.
If the Czech can provide that much-needed touch of flair, Dynamo can still go deep into the play-offs; if not, it’s hard to see where a successful title defense might come from. Dynamo opens up against KHL newcomer Slovan.
Traktor to play at home
It might have been the most unlikely cause for a re-arranged fixture – meteorite damage at the home arena! Happily, however, the stray space rock which peppered Chelyabinsk last Friday has not caused significant damage to the Traktor Arena. An official building inspection on Monday confirmed that the venue was safe for public use, and Traktor will host Barys Astana as planned in Thursday’s opening play-off game.
The KHL’s Western Conference play-off games start on Wednesday. Regular season champion SKA faces Atlant, CSKA will take on Lev Prague while Dynamo welcomes Slovan to Moscow and Lokomotiv entertains Severstal. The following day the action gets underway in the East, with Ak Bars playing Neftekhimik, Avangard hosting Sibir, Traktor playing Barys and Metallurg Magnitogorsk lining up against Salavat Yulayev. All series are to be played on a best-of-seven basis.