KHL Playoffs, Round 1: East Conference Preview
As the KHL postseason gets rolling we head off to the East Conference, providers of last year’s Gagarin Cup champions Metallurg Magnitogorsk. Is there a repeat in store? Are the boys from Omsk back among the serious contenders? And what are the putting in the water in Novosibirsk? We make some guesses below the jump!
Ak Bars Kazan (1) vs. Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg (8)
This one, sadly, looks like as big a mis-match as the seedings suggest. Ak Bars, always known for superb defensive play under coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov, were at it again this year. Only CSKA Moscow, in the entire KHL, gave up fewer goals than the Tatarstan team’s 115. Their goaltending is excellent, and their defense possibly even better, featuring as it does the magnificent Ilya Nikulin and a number of other real studs besides. Given that, who cares that Justin Azevedo was the only Ak Bars regular to come close to a point per game (50 points in 58 games)? And actually, Ak Bars aren’t really all that feeble when it comes to scoring; they potted 169 goals on the year, 5th-best in the East but only seven behind Conference leaders Sibir. In short, what we have here is a real contender for the Gagarin Cup, as is the case most years with Ak Bars.
As for Avtomobilist — well, they made the playoffs for a second straight year, fending off a lengthy challenge from Admiral Vladivostok and a late run by Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk. That’s not meant to be backhanded; it’s a real accomplishment for a team that was at death’s door financially less than three years ago and is still far from rich. However, their lineup is not deep to begin with — nobody on the team managed more than 29 points this year — and there are some injury worries on top of that (Gilbert Brule, to name one, is still unavailable for action). One interesting note: goalie Jakub Kovar played in all 60 games for Avtomobilist, and stopped shots at a respectable if not spectacular rate of .923.
It’s next to impossible to see how Avtomobilist can score enough to win this series. In fact, don’t be surprised if it ends up a sweep for the team from Kazan.
Sibir Novosibirsk Oblast (2) vs. Traktor Chelyabinsk (7)
Ah, Sibir — unquestionably the feel-good story of the season! The Novosibirskians advanced to the last eight for the first time ever in 2013-14, upsetting mighty Ak Bars in the postseason’s first round. That was followed by the summer from Hell; their coach was lured to CSKA Moscow, their top scorer ran away to join the St. Louis Blues, and to top it all off they nearly went broke. Things looked dire. And yet here we are in February, and Sibir have not only made the playoffs, but won their division, and had a real crack at the top spot in the East Conference. Much credit for this must go to new coach Andrei Skabelka — under his tutelage, Sibir were the top-scoring East Conference team with 176 goals, and they gave up the second-fewest as well (125). To put that another way, Sibir were a goal per game better than their opponents over the course of the season. Make no mistake: we’re not dealing with smoke and mirrors here, but with a genuinely very good hockey team.
That said, Traktor have some reasons to be cheerful as well. Usually to be found among the KHL’s best, they went from Gagarin Cup finalists two years ago to missing the playoffs in 2013-14. The current session got off to a stuttering start as well, costing coach Karri Kivi his job in favour of Andrei Nikolishin. Nikolishin came in with no head-coaching experience, but nonetheless righted the ship, and Chelyabinsk fans can once again look forward to postseason action. This is not a team full of pizzazz — Traktor scored only 144 goals on the year, ninth-most in the East — and while their defense is not a weakness, it’s not a huge game-changing strength either (154 goals conceded this year). They do have a bright spot in goal in the form of veteran campaigner Michael Garnett, upon whom they will rely very heavily.
All the numbers scream that Sibir should take this series at a stroll, and they very well may. However, the Novosibirsk team did lose its last three games of the regular season, scoring only twice. They will also play Game 1 against Traktor without starting goalie Alexander Salak. The Czech netminder, acquired in mid-season from SKA for the popular Mikko Koskinen, was ridiculously good for Sibir down the stretch (.945 sv% in 21 games), so that’s a hole, even if only for one match. I still think Sibir take the series, but it may be closer than the seedings indicate. Call it six games.
Metallurg Magnitogorsk (3) vs. Salavat Yulaev Ufa (6)
Write off Sergei Mozyakin at your peril. It looked, for a time, like 2014-15 was the season in which age and injury had finally come to call on the best player in the history of the KHL, but in the end he played 49 games and averaged better than a point in each of them. Even missing a fifth of the season, he was fourth in the league with 27 goals. And that’s before we get to Mozyakin’s partners in crime; linemates Jan Kovar and Danis Zaripov were second and third in the KHL in points (68 and 64, respectively). And then there’s Chris Lee and his 46 points as a defenseman, and the 6’7″ man-mountain Vasily Koshechkin (.934 save percentage, 3rd-best in the KHL) in net, and so on and so forth. This is a stacked, stacked, lineup, and coach Mike Keenan stands a very good chance of getting himself a second straight Gagarin Cup ring.
As for Salavat Yulaev, they had a wild season, losing their primary sponsor partway through (too long a story to delve into here, but there are hopeful signs that Salavat Yulaev won’t end up like Spartak). On the ice, Kirill Koltsov had a fantastic year, leading his team in scoring with 48 points despite being a defenseman (he led the KHL in points and goals by a rearguard). But the Bashkir team is critically weak in goal. Vitaly Koval had a fine start to the season for them at that position, but got hurt in October and hasn’t played since. His replacements, Leland Irving and Vladimir Sokhatsky, have been well below average, and that is not what you want to hear in the run-up to a series against Mozyakin and friends.
In short, Metallurg’s firepower against Salavat Yulaev’s shaky netminding should be the story of this series. The team from Ufa has some nice things, but not enough to cope. The defending champs take it in five.
Avangard Omsk Oblast (4) vs. Barys Astana (5)
And here we have the battle of, shall we say, “fiery” coaches. The Omsk team is led by Raimo Summanen, whose previous tenure with Avangard ended in 2012 when he was fired during a playoff series after trying to fight some of his own players. To give Summanen his due, he kept his temper in check after returning this past summer, and has guided Avangard back to the playoffs after they stunningly missed out in 2013-14 (it was a story strikingly similar to Traktor’s in that regard, actually). On the other hand, I think we honestly have to say that the season’s success had as much to do with the off-season acquisition of goalie Konstantin Barulin as it did with coaching. It was, without a doubt, terrible goaltending that torpedoed Avangard’s 2013-14 season, and Barulin’s .923 save percentage in 2014-15 came as a welcome return to stability even if it wasn’t world-beating.
Over at the Barys, meanwhile, 2014-15 has to go down as a disappointment, especially after the team grabbed the second seed in the East in 2013-14. Coach Andrei Nazarov arrived in the off-season with a deserved reputation for getting the most out of his lineups, a talent which had been on full display in his previous jobs in Cherepovets and Donetsk. The Kazakh team also brought back well-respected defenseman Kevin Dallman from SKA, kept together their immensely talented front line of Nigel Dawes, Brandon Bochenski, and Dustin Boyd, and looked set to take the next step into the league’s elite. The end result? Fifth place in the Conference, and a soap opera surrounding Nazarov. The former NHL tough guy was suspended twice, once for throwing a water bottle at an opposing player. The main problem with Barys, as has been the case in the past, was inability to prevent goals against — of the East’s playoff teams, only Salavat Yulaev gave up more than the 165 that ended up in the Barys net.
As for who wins this one, it will depend largely on whether Barys can sort out their defensive shortcomings, as the two teams are basically a wash in terms of scoring. The Dawes-Bochenski-Boyd trio is indeed a good one, and should keep the series close, but I’ll take Summanen, and Avangard, in seven games.
We’ll check back in on the first round at some point next week, and see how the predictions are coming along!