KHL Playoffs, Round 3: Early Impressions
Small sample size alert! The KHL Conference Finals are each one game old at this point — have we learned anything of importance? Perhaps, perhaps not, but only the next few days will tell us for sure. That said, there’s nothing stopping us from making a few trenchant observations below the jump on the state of affairs so far!
West Conference Final: CSKA Moscow (1) vs. SKA St. Petersburg (2)
The clash between the grand old Red Army team and their former Soviet-era farm club from St. Petersburg involves enough hot heads to promise some drama, and Game 1 certainly supplied in that department. CSKA won it handily, 3-0, and the early suggestion is that SKA have a real problem. Losing steady defenseman Dmitry Kalinin to a season-ending injury in that first game was part of the issue, and another bit came from Ilya Kovalchuk’s unprovoked sneak attack on Alexander Radulov late in the contest. While the KHL forbore meting out any additional discipline to the SKA captain, we are compelled to wonder a little bit about Kovalchuk’s composure. All in all, it was hardly a banner day for SKA coach Vyacheslav Bykov, who needs something much better to happen on Saturday when the teams meet again.
CSKA, as you might imagine, are glowing at the moment, with special pleasure coming from Radulov’s dominant performance in the series-opener. A goal and two assists, and the goal was pure Rads; there was skill as he tried a cheeky no-look pass through his own feet (it nearly worked, too), followed by power as he was able to jam home the loose puck even as Kalinin tackled him to the ice. There was even a bit of the infamous Radulov temper on that play as well, as he exchanged glares and shoves with Kalinin in the aftermath of the goal. However — and this may turn out to be important — he also skated away from the fracas before very much came of it. Like Kovalchuk, Radulov can be induced to lose his head, to the detriment of his team, and that flat-out did not happen in this case.
So what next? Well, SKA’s first task is to find a way to get a puck or two in behind opposing goalie Stanislav Galimov. Easier said than done in these playoffs; Galimov has a .969 sv% and a GAA of 0.63 in four post-season games so far (he seems to have nicked the starting job from Kevin Lalande, at least for now). Fortunately for them, the St. Petersburg boys have some offensive weapons. They can look to Kovalchuk, of course, and Artemy Panarin, but Vadim Shipachyov and Patrick Thoresen are also having a productive time of it this Spring. This one, as they say, is miles from done.
East Conference Final: Ak Bars Kazan (1) vs. Sibir Novosibirsk Oblast (2)
Defensive stolidity, thy name is Ak Bars Kazan. After today’s 2-0 victory in Game 1, the Tatars have now given up exactly one goal, total, in their last five games. With a stat like that, we have to take our hats off to Swedish goalie Anders Nilsson, but the defensemen in front of him, not to mention coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov’s tactics, make his life a great deal easier. And while Ak Bars will never remind anyone of the 1980s Edmonton Oilers when it comes to scoring (their second in today’s game was a dead fluke), they don’t really need to.
As for Sibir, they have already firmly grasped the title of “Best Story of the 2014-15 Season,” and will look back on last round’s stunning five-game elimination of defending champions Metallurg Magnitogorsk as one of the great feats in the team’s history. That series was all about silencing the offensive firepower of Mike Keenan’s team, and Sibir did it with aplomb. In Ak Bars, they face the opposite challenge: finding a weak spot, any weak spot, in their opponents’ armour. The scoreline from Game 1 tells us that they haven’t managed it yet, and their next opportunity will come on Sunday.
However, we underestimate Sibir somewhat at our peril. Defenseman Patrik Hersley leads all blueliners in these playoffs with nine points (in 12 games), and is a canny one when it comes to joining the rush. Sibir tend to spread their scoring around a bit, with no forwards having more than eight points at this stage, but that too can be of benefit. Make no mistake, Ak Bars remain the heavy favourites, and Game 1 did nothing to contradict that notion, but if Sibir start scoring this series will become very interesting in very short order!