KHL Playoffs, Round 1: West Conference Preview
We turn now, at this blog, from the early days of Soviet hockey to the present. The seventh edition of the KHL playoffs commences tomorrow, so it’s time to take a look at what the first round might hold. We’ll begin with the West Conference, including the regular season champions versus some precocious newcomers, not to mention a fascinating rematch from last season’s first round!
Below the jump, we look at each series in the West, make some predictions, and even wander down a sideroad or two!
CSKA Moscow (1) vs. HK Sochi (8)
Ahh, Alexander Radulov! The CSKA superstar led the KHL in points this year, with 71 in only 46 games, and when going well he plays the game with a combination of power, skill, and raw seething emotion that is riveting to watch. The heart-on-sleeve stuff can get him in trouble, though; prone to outbursts of Homeric rage (“Sing, Goddess, the wrath etc.”), he was second in the league with 143 penalty minutes, and sometimes seems to view referees as a species of malevolent demon put on Earth specifically to torment him. Keeping Radulov out of the red mist, and the penalty box, and the Disciplinary Committee offices, will be among CSKA coach Dmitry Kvartalnov’s key tasks as the playoffs roll along.
However, as regards the first round, this is a mis-match of fairly serious proportions. The expansion team from Sochi earned itself an honourable playoff berth with a last-day win against Lada Tolyatti, and do boast some useful pieces — André Petersson (20 goals on the year) and Andrei Kostitsyn (31 points in 37 games), to name but two. Their mid-season addition of NHL veteran Ryan Whitney has also worked out very well indeed — surprisingly so, in fact, given Whitney’s chronic injury issues. For added storyline, HK Sochi also have a Radulov — Alexander’s brother Igor — although his scoring exploits pale in comparison to the one employed by CSKA. While respectable enough, this is not a deep lineup, and one gets the sense that they may be in over their heads here.
In fact, CSKA Moscow are simply superior everywhere on the ice. In addition to Radulov, they can run out French forward Stephane Da Costa (62 points in 46 games), an absolute gem of a young blueliner in Nikita Zaitsev, and a half dozen other legitimate stars I could name. Runaway winners of the regular season title, they scored the second-most goals in the KHL (207 in 60 games) and gave up the fewest (98), and it is no exaggeration at all to say that the last time CSKA Moscow looked this good, Viktor Tikhonov was their coach, and the likes of Igor Larionov, Vyacheslav Fetisov, and Sergei Makarov were still in the fold. Right now — and yes, I know that no KHL regular season champion has ever even made the finals, let alone captured the Gagarin Cup — the old Red Army team has to be the odds-on favourite to win it all.
We’ll let the underdogs win a game here (and congratulate them on a fine inaugural season, complete with very decent support from their home fans), but give CSKA the series in five, and Alexander Radulov gets family bragging rights for the summer over Igor.
SKA St. Petersburg (2) vs. Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod (7)
By this time, we know the story of SKA St. Petersburg. The high-powered offence (best in the KHL again this year, with 210 goals), the money, Ilya Kovalchuk, the yearly appearances at or near the top of the regular season standings. And, of course, the complete absence of Gagarin Cup titles, or even trips to the finals, in the team’s history — the cause of much mirth among their rivals, as you can imagine. This year saw Vyacheslav Bykov come in as head coach, and once again SKA are among the front-runners. While their mid-season goalie trade of Alexander Salak for Sibir’s Mikko Koskinen was an odd move, it hasn’t hurt them any — Koskinen has been very good since coming over (.927 save percentage in 21 games). And that powerful offense does not rely on one man; Artemy Panarin (62 points in 54 games), Kovalchuk (55 in 54), and Vadim Shipachyov (54 in 49) all scored better than a point per game, so there’s some excellent depth there.
Torpedo, meanwhile, are all about their Finnish contingent. Sakari Salminen and Jarkko Immonen were first and third on the team in points, with 47 and 40 respectively (Canadian Wojtek Wolski was sandwiched in second place with 43), while Juuso Hietanen led the defense corps in that category with 27. Torpedo had a sort of up-and-down season, dropping out of what looked like a secure playoff spot around Christmas, then winning eight in a row late on to get it back. Latvian coach Pēteris Skudra is one of the better bench bosses in the KHL, and — if you’ll forgive the cliche — his Torpedo team can prove very difficult to play against. They don’t have the sorts of weapons that are available to SKA, but the Nizhny Novgorod team should not be overlooked for a moment.
(Incidentally, if Torpedo do find themselves in need of inspiration, they don’t have far to search. The Nizhny Novgorod women’s team, SKIF, was crowned champion of Europe this past week. Among SKIF’s key players in the finals, alongside the amazing Olga Sosina, were goalie Meeri Raisanen, defensewoman Mira Jalosuo, and forward Karoliina Rantomaki — all three of them Finnish. But I digress.)
This may just be a bit of a trap series for SKA. For one thing, they sort of ambled down the stretch, going 5-6 in their last 11 regular season games, while Torpedo were putting up a 9-2 record over the same span. There are also worries in St. Petersburg regarding the health of Panarin and defenseman Anton Belov. Both men are expected back at some point during the playoffs, but perhaps not right away, and that leaves some holes. That said, SKA should win this series on talent, although they may be pushed pretty hard for it. We’ll give it to SKA in seven.
Dynamo Moscow (3) vs. Lokomotiv Yaroslavl (6)
Second verse, same as the first! You may remember the 2013-14 season, when Lokomotiv, struggling outside the playoff picture, made a coaching change and brought in Dave King. King promptly turned things around, Lokomotiv made the playoffs, and their first-round opponent turned out to the Dynamo Moscow. Well, here we are in 2014-15, a season that saw the Yaroslavl team flounder early, bring back King (he had stepped down after the previous year’s heroics), and head to the playoffs to meet Dynamo once again.
Of course, last season’s story didn’t end in the first round of the playoffs for Lokomotiv. Playing as the 8th seed, they eliminated Dynamo, who were only the two-time defending Gagarin Cup champions and the winners of that year’s regular season title. SKA St. Petersburg were Lokomotiv’s next victims, as Dave King’s team went on an unlikely run to the final four. Do they have a similar exploit in them this year?
It is possible, although Dynamo have to be the favourites in this one going in, even setting aside the serving-revenge-as-a-cold-dish factor. Harijs Vītoliņš’ men scored more goals (172-155) and gave up fewer (120-143) than Lokomotiv this season, and that’s a tell. Dynamo have the three Alexanders available in goal — Yeryomenko, Lazushin, and Sharychenkov — and any one of them could have been a starter on any team in the league. The only worry for Dynamo on paper is the length of their injury list, which currently includes dangerous forward Maxim Pestushko and useful defenseman Filip Novák.
Lokomotiv, meanwhile will come in with a clean bill of health, if not with a great deal of firepower. Geoff Platt led the team with 17 goals, and Yegor Averin tied with Sergei Plotnikov for top spot in points with 36. One fellow to watch is Sergei Konkov — the journeyman forward broke out under King’s tutelage in last year’s playoffs, scoring 8 times in 18 games after finding the net only thrice in 27 regular season contests. This season, when King returned to his spot behind the Lokomotiv bench, the old magic was still there. Konkov ended up with 13 goals and 30 points in 57 games, his best output since the 2010-11 season.
In the end, while it would be great fun to see Dave King’s men pull off the upset again, this looks like Dynamo’s series. Lokomotiv go the distance, but the Moscow side wins in seven.
Jokerit Helsinki (4) vs. Dinamo Minsk (5)
The standings suggest that this should be the closest of the four West Conference matchups, and there is evidence elsewhere to make that notion plausible. For one thing, Jokerit and Dinamo scored exactly the same number of goals in the 2014-15 regular season – 171. On the other hand, the Minskites gave up 23 more markers than did the Helsinki team. The result: despite there being only one place in the standings between them, the two clubs were separated by 19 points.
It has actually been a nice recovery season for Dinamo Minsk, who had not seen the playoffs since the spring of 2012. Last offseason, the Belarusan team snaffled up four North American forwards from Medveščak Zagreb, who had provided one of 2013-14’s better stories by making the playoffs despite a tiny player budget. Those four men — Charles Linglet, Matt Ellison, Jonathan Cheechoo, and Ryan Vesce — proceeded to occupy the top four positions on Dinamo’s scoring chart, with Linglet (58 points in 54 games) in the leading spot. Another North American, U.S. defenseman Nick Bailen, was an absolute revelation after arriving from Finland’s Tappara. He scored 36 points — fourth-most among KHL rearguards — and was most deservedly selected to play in the 2015 All-Star Game.
Jokerit, meanwhile, enjoyed an excellent first season in the KHL after coming over from the Finnish league. Never out of the top four in the Conference, they got exceptional work from the likes of Linus Omark (47 points and a team-best +19), Niklas Hagman (19 goals), and defenseman Ryan Gunderson (second on the team with 29 assists). And, of course, the spectacular campaign from Steve Moses. The 25-year-old American forward broke the KHL record for goals in a season with 36, and ended up with 57 points in 60 games. Wonderful stuff, and coach Erkka Westerlund and his men have no reason not to look forward to a nice run in the playoffs.
How nice? Well, every year one of the big questions come KHL playoff time is whether this is the year that a non-Russian team wins the Gagarin Cup (Lev Prague, as you may remember, came awfully close to it last year). For 2014-15, Jokerit are clearly the class of the non-Russian brigade, and should probably be considered genuine contenders, although of course there are miles and miles yet to go. In the short run, they should be able to deal with Dinamo Minsk, and I’ll say they do it in six games.
Round One kicks off in the West Conference tomorrow, with the East getting started on Saturday. Our preview of the East Conference first-round matchups will be along between now and then!