KHL Playoffs, Round 1: Progress Report
It has been an interesting first week of playoff activity! There have been some odd scores, a heroic performance or two, and although we haven’t seen any massive surprises yet — well, five of the eight series are still going, so there’s time. Below the jump, a paragraph or so on what each of the first-round matchups has looked like so far!
CSKA Moscow (1) vs. HK Sochi (8) — CSKA won 4 games to 0.
This was very much a “steady-as-she-goes” performance by the regular season champions against an over-matched if hard-working Sochi team. CSKA out-shot the Black Sea expansion squad by 16 shots per game over the course of the series, and outscored their opponents 14-4 in total. Much tougher tests lurk in the future for the regular season champions, of course, and we wait to see whether their long period of down-time before Round 2 leaves them well-rested or rusty. As for HK Sochi, their first ever season must be declared something of a success, even without playoff glory — now the question is how to build on that.
SKA St. Petersburg (2) vs. Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod (7) — SKA won 4 games to 1.
Make no mistake, this was an important, and impressive, victory for SKA, whose previous failures to live up to their massive reputation are now part of the general lore of the KHL. Torpedo were certainly the second-best team in this series coming in, but not by as much as the standings suggest, and their series-leveling victory in St. Petersburg in Game 2 must have caused some anxiety around the SKA camp. But Vyacheslav Bykov’s men rallied nicely, won the next three games without looking very troubled, and are deservedly into the last eight. Torpedo have some thoughts to think about consistency; but for a hideous post-Christmas slump, they could and should have finished higher in the standings and earned themselves a theoretically-easier first round opponent.
Dynamo Moscow (3) vs. Lokomotiv Yaroslavl (6) — Dynamo leads 3 games to 2, Game 6 on Saturday.
The rematch that everyone was looking forward to has lived up to advance billing, with both teams having led the series at one point or another. Game five was an odd one, as Dynamo scored seven times on only 18 shots, with most of the damage done in a disastrous second period for Lokomotiv. It is worth remembering, however, that Dave King’s Yaroslavlians were in exactly this position a year ago, and proceeded to outscore Dynamo 11-1 over the last two games of the series on their way to that thunderous upset.
Jokerit Helsinki (4) vs. Dinamo Minsk (5) — Jokerit won 4 games to 1.
For the last stretch of Game 1, as they fought back from 2-0 down and then won it in overtime, Dinamo Minsk looked like they would make this a long series. It was a mirage; Jokerit had controlled matters up until those late minutes, and they avoided further lapses over the next four games in what has to be described as a clinical demolition of the Belarusan team. In the end, it was a thoroughly demoralized Dinamo squad that succumbed 7-1 in the series-clinching Game 5. For the Finns as they look forward to the second round, all systems are “Go,” all cylinders are firing – you can pick your metaphor!
Ak Bars Kazan (1) vs. Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg (8) — Ak Bars leads 3 games to 1, Game 5 on Friday.
Poor Avtomobilist! But for a bit of luck, and a bit of composure, they would be tied or better in this series. The Yekaterinburg team was up by a pair with only two minutes to play in Game 2, and ended up losing in overtime for the second straight match. Oscar Möller was the overtime hero for Ak Bars in both those games. The team from Kazan is certainly the stronger of the two teams by some way, and should advance to the second round, but they will need to be better as the playoffs roll along.
Sibir Novosibirsk Oblast (2) vs. Traktor Chelyabinsk (7) — Series tied at 2, Game 5 on Friday.
Sibir produced one of the jaw-dropping moments of the playoffs so far in the second period of Game 3 of this series, when they scored four times in 1:45 (a KHL record for the quickest four goals) while enjoying a five-minute powerplay. Apart from that, however, Traktor have proven surprisingly difficult, with a particularly strong performance so far from veteran defenseman Deron Quint (six points in the series). They have already won once in Novosibirsk (albeit with Sibir’s top goalie Alexander Salak unavailable due to suspension), and rebounded from that Game 3 disaster to level the series the next day. Sibir still have the edge here, at least as I see it, but this thing is miles from being over.
Metallurg Magnitogorsk (3) vs. Salavat Yulaev (6) — Metallurg leads series 3 games to 1, Game 5 on Friday.
It took defending champions Metallurg just a little while to get properly rolling in this one. They were held to two goals in each of the first three games, but managed to win two of them thanks to stellar goaltending by Vasily Koshechkin, and in Game 4 the big line of Sergei Mozyakin, Danis Zaripov, and Jan Kovář took over. Mozyakin scored a hat-trick (see video above) on the way to a 6-4 victory, giving the trio 15 points overall in the series and putting Mike Keenan’s troops on the brink of the second round. For Salavat Yulaev, this has been a frustrating series, but that takes second place to the happy announcement made by the club this week. After losing their general sponsor partway through this season, the Bashkir team has found a replacement in the form of petroleum company Bashneft, and the future appears much more secure than it did a little while ago.
Avangard Omsk Oblast (4) vs. Barys Astana (5) — Series tied at 2, Game 5 on Friday.
Ján Laco, the Astana team’s Slovak goalie, has been the big story in this one, stopping 78 shots in shutout victories in both Game 2 and Game 3. He will need to continue that strong play if Barys are to have any hope of advancing, since they lost forward Brandon Bochenski — ninth in the KHL this season with 56 points — to a season-ending knee injury in the first game of the series. That is terrible news for the Kazakh squad, who have relied heavily on the line of Bochenski, Nigel Dawes, and Dustin Boyd.
We will check back in once the first round is over, and take a look at the second-round matchups!