KHL Playoffs: To the Finals!
Through the first couple of rounds, the 2014-15 Gagarin Cup Playoffs had largely failed to provide much in the way of nail-biting drama. There had certainly been wondrous moments, good or bad depending on one’s affiliations, but only a single series out of twelve had made to seven games, and only two others had gone as far as six. And, when the Conference Finals rolled around, the East largely followed the script. Ak Bars Kazan saw off Sibir Novosibirsk in a tidy five game set, not allowing a single goal in the final two matches of the series. The Tatar giants advanced to their third Final in the KHL’s seven-year history, having emerged as champions on the previous two occasions in 2009 and 2010.
But over in the West, it was a different matter… Below the jump, a look at the amazing series between CSKA Moscow and SKA St. Petersburg, plus some notes on the Gagarin Cup Final!
Even before it began, the West Conference Final was a series with some enticing storylines. We can start with the historical: both teams used to represent the Red Army back in Soviet days, although of course CSKA had by far the greater pre-eminence over their rivals from what was then Leningrad. The two teams’ most famous names provided another point of interest, as both SKA’s Ilya Kovalchuk and Alexander Radulov of the Moscow side had been snatched from the clutches of the NHL in recent years. What else? The Viktor Tikhonov factor — the famous Soviet coach, who died this past winter, was the last man to lead CSKA to a national title, and his grandson, also Viktor, now toils for SKA. And we can toss in the fact that neither team has made ever made it to a Gagarin Cup Final. So there was a great deal to think about as the series opened in Moscow!
Despite their vast wealth, SKA St. Petersburg have infamously never won the big one — playoff disappointment has become an annual visitor to the banks of the Neva River where it empties into the Gulf of Finland. And, for the first three games against against CSKA, it looked like another barren year was at hand. The Moscow team’s Alexander Radulov was at his magnificent best, racking up eight points and displaying little sign of the temperamental streak that has landed him in hot water on so many occasions in the past. While Game 2 in particular was a tight affair, running into the third overtime, CSKA won it in the end, and combined with more comfortable victories in the first and third games it gave the Muscovites an apparent death grip on that precious ticket to the Final (all the more so as they were poised to welcome key offensive sparkplug Stephane Da Costa back from injury).
Well, somewhere in the hours between Game 3 and Game 4, SKA found an answer. First it was their nominal second line — Artemy Panarin, Vadim Shipachyov, and Yevgeny Dadonov — that found the range, combining for a stunning 19 points in two games as SKA climbed back into it. Then it was Norwegian forward Patrick Thoresen’s turn to play the hero, as he fired home the overtime winner in Game 6. In addition, that game saw Kovalchuk break out of a minor slump, as he found the net for the first time in seven contests. Suddenly the series was tied, and a truly unlikely Game 7 awaited the fans this past Tuesday in Moscow.
It did not disappoint as a spectacle. First SKA sprinted out ahead, as goals from Kovalchuk and Dadonov game them a 2-0 lead halfway through. But Radulov and Da Costa answered for CSKA in a three-minute span late in the second period, and the two teams went to the third on level terms. Once again, it was Thoresen who settled matters — with ten minutes to play, he tipped an Anton Belov shot through the legs of CSKA goalie Kevin Lalande to put SKA in front. The St. Petersburg team clung on from there, completing their miraculous comeback — the first recovery from a 3-0 series deficit in the KHL’s brief history — with a 3-2 victory. The clever boffins in the KHL social media department promptly set the Game 7 highlights to Adele’s “Skyfall,” and it makes for compelling stuff:
So why did the comeback happen? There are many factors, some more compelling than others, and they should provide excellent fodder for off-season chit-chat. Certainly no blame for CSKA’s heartbreak can be placed on Radulov’s shoulders — even as things were falling apart, he remained as dangerous a weapon for his team as he has been all playoffs. And while some may question CSKA’s decision to switch back and forth between Lalande and Stanislav Galimov in net, both ‘tenders performed well over the course of the post-season. In this case, it may be better to give credit to SKA than blame their opponents. Whether it was desperation, or pride, or astute coaching, or even just good old regression to the mean — and it was probably some combination of those — the boys from St. Petersburg simply played very very well all over the ice on their way to that victory. And whatever the reasons behind it, it was spectacular.
And so it will be SKA St. Petersburg against Ak Bars Kazan for the Gagarin Cup, with the festivities getting underway on Saturday in Tatarstan. The Final will feature two teams of contrasting styles. While SKA are certainly not weak in goal, with Finland’s Mikko Koskinen guarding the pipes (he has an excellent .933 sv% in this post-season), their calling card is scoring goals. The St. Petersburgians currently employ four of the top six point-getters in these playoffs (the other two play for the just-vanquished CSKA), and are so loaded up front that scoring talents like Roman Červenka and Jimmy Ericsson find themselves outside the top two lines. Coach Vyacheslav Bykov was even able to send young Tikhonov, a talented player who is admittedly struggling badly in these playoffs, to the press box for the last games of the CSKA series. If we go with the old familiar imagery, SKA St. Petersburg fall easily into the category of “Unstoppable Force.”
We all know, however, what an unstoppable force is likely to meet, and Ak Bars Kazan most definitely qualify as the old “Immovable Object.” Zinetula Bilyaletdinov, former USSR team-mate of his rival Bykov, is a known defensive whiz as a coach, and that aspect of things has been on full display in these playoffs. Ridiculously so, in fact. Ak Bars have recorded six shutouts in their last ten games, and gave up only three goals total in the five-game series against Sibir. Swedish goalie Anders Nilsson has stopped shots at a .953 rate over 15 playoff games this spring, a truly remarkable feat. Of course, there are some questions about their ability to score goals. The team’s leading point-getter is another Swede, Oscar Möller, but there are six players on SKA who have equaled or bettered his modest nine points (yes, SKA have played two more games, but still). And Möller is the only Ak Bars player in the top 20 KHL post-season scorers so far. However, he gets full marks for efficiency; of Möller’s eight goals, six have been game-winners, and three of those have come in overtime!
Given the differences in style and thus tactics between the two teams, it may be a bit of a fool’s errand to try to make any predictions. It is somewhat tempting to fall back on the old cliché that states that “defense wins championships,” and I do not think it unreasonable to have Ak Bars down as favourites going in (they have home-ice advantage, for one thing). However, whatever margin there is between the teams is probably of the razor-thin variety, and SKA have now proven quite convincingly that they can beat anybody when they put their minds to it. Whoever wins in the end, if this Gagarin Cup Final is even half as much fun as the West Conference series was, we are in for a treat!