MYTISHI, Russia – Russia’s KHL contenders are down to the last four – and all eyes are on Atlant Mytishi as the Western Conference final gets underway on Wednesday. A year ago it was the unfancied Moscow Region side MVD Balashikha, which upset the form book to reach the grand final; in 2011 another side from the edge of the capital is hoping for a triumph against the odds.
Atlant’s stirring recovery against money-bags SKA St. Petersburg – a side fuelled by Gazprom’s resources – has dominated the hockey press in Russia. And that’s hardly surprising: Atlant trailed 3-1 and headed to game five in St. Petersburg last week with few giving them any hope of staying in the contest. But come Sunday afternoon Milos Riha’s men were not only still in it, they were dumping out their much-touted opponents with a gritty overtime win which proves that spending power does not count for everything out on the ice.
Now the question is simple: can they do it again? It won’t be easy. Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, perpetual bridesmaids, has a wealth of play-off experience after being back-to-back runners-up in 2008 and 2009. MVD snapped that streak a year ago, but the railway men are a byword for consistency, and after seeing Ak Bars Kazan crash out in the East, hopes are high that the top prize is finally scheduled to arrive beside a different stretch of the Volga.
Moreover, many have pointed out that Loko will benefit from a long rest after dispatching Dynamo Riga 4-1 and leaving Atlant and SKA to slug it out to the bitter end. And some have even hinted that Atlant were lucky to get this far: their second equalizer in the decider in St. Petersburg came from the kind of howler that will give goaltender Jakub Stepanek nightmares all summer.
Sovietski Sport’s hockey expert Boris Mayorov is among those who feel that Atlant have come as far as they can. “All the cards are in Loko’s hands,” he said. “They are fresher, have a better squad and more play-off experience.
“At the same time Atlant will inevitably feel that knocking out SKA is a cause for satisfaction, and that plays into Loko’s hands. There is nothing left up Riha’s sleeve - he played all his trump cards against SKA.”
But no team coached by Riha should be written off so fast. The foghorn-voiced Czech, notorious for bawling out officials from the bench, has previous experience when it comes to upsetting the odds. Last season with Spartak he led his team to an unexpected play-off win over a Dynamo Moscow side which included a raft of highly paid stars including the likes of Mattias Weinhandl and Denis Denisov.
Those two, now with SKA, are enduring a second dose of the Riha effect – delivered in part by players like Dmitri Upper, Eduard Lewandowski and Jaroslav Obshut, who donned the Red-and-White a year before. They form part of a squad opportunistically enhanced by the late season capture of Jan Marek, a former champion with Metallurg Magnitogorsk who was allowed to leave CSKA’s struggles early. Throw in long-time local hero Sergei Mozyakin and late-season signing Fyodor Fyodorov – the two who have led the play-off point-scoring – and you’ve got a potent mix of players with plenty of ability and a point to prove.
And a season which began with him being fired by Spartak after an indifferent start and allegations of locker-room bust-ups is set to turn into a personal triumph for Riha. His former employers showed little sign of improvement after his abrupt departure, while his new charges have steadily grown in stature during his second stint in the Arena Mytishi hot seat.
Fatigue shouldn’t be a concern either: after all, SKA breezed into the conference semis with a 4-0 sweep of Spartak while Atlant needed six meetings to overcome a gritty Severstal side. The only slight note of concern comes from Riha’s own post-match comments in St. Petersburg on Sunday, where he seemed to suggest that getting this far was an achievement in itself. “Victory over SKA and progress to the semi-finals of the Gagarin Cup is a great joy for us,” the coach said. But, along with hymns of praise to the team’s loyal fans, that is for public consumption; in the locker room it would be naive to assume any player will be encouraged to take it easy and enjoy the occasion.
More relevant, perhaps, is his rallying call that the whole of Mytishi will be on its feet for the team, doing its utmost to create a hostile atmosphere when the action comes to town in game 3 on Sunday. The rather undistinguished suburban town to the north of Moscow has only hosted top-level hockey since the team – then still known as Khimik – decamped from the historic provincial hotbed of Voskresensk in 2006.
They became the proud tenants of an arena built for the 2007 IIHF World Championship, and left behind no small measure of resentment in their old home. With the advent of the KHL in 2008, and the remaining Khimik Voskresensk team returning to the Russian top flight, the Mytishi men adopted a new identity as Atlant and now, for the first time, they are bringing their new home to within touching distance of a triumph which would better the original quartet of Soviet-era silver medals.
If Atlant have supplied the fairy story of this season’s play-offs, the games in the east have been no less intriguing. Regular season champions Avangard Omsk were pushed all the way by rank outsiders Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk before falling in seven games to Metallurg Magnitogorsk. The Magnitogorsk team’s reward, though, is a daunting clash with Salavat Yulayev Ufa.
Under the guidance of national team coach Vyacheslav Bykov, and boasting the flamboyant talent of Alexander Radulov up front, the Ufa team sensationally ended Ak Bars’ reign as KHL kings with a contemptuous 4-1 demolition in their semi-final. For Tatar fans used to success – Zinetula Bilyaletdinov’s team have won the title in 2006, 2009 and 2010, and were runners-up in 2007 – this is a huge shock. And if the Kazan dynasty is coming to an end it could speed the transformation of Bykov’s national squad: the likes of club and country captain Alexei Morozov will be 37 come the Sochi Olympics and the search is already on for new talent.
NOTE: The KHL Conference finals are both settled by a best-of-seven series. In the west Lokomotiv Yaroslavl starts at home to Atlant Mytishi on Wednesday, March 23; Salavat Yulayev Ufa hosts Metallurg Magnitogorsk on Thursday as the action hots up in the east.