Gagarin Cup Playoff Preview: West Conference
And here we are at the playoffs! The West Conference is all set to go, with the opening faceoffs of the first round to take place on Sunday. Below the jump, we run the rule over the four opening series, and try to draw a bead on who will still be standing all is said and done.
(team records are in the format: regulation wins – OT/SO wins – OT/SO losses – regulation losses)
(1) CSKA Moscow (38-5-3-14) versus (8) Slovan Bratislava (21-11-4-24)
Slovan Bratislava told a remarkable tale this season, from nearly dropping out of the league last summer to making the playoffs under the steady guidance of veteran coach Miloš Říha (had I a vote for KHL Coach of the Year, I do believe it would go to him). The 57-year-old Czech designed a team that was second in the league in shots on goal per game (32.95), and he got help from an unlikely source. Much-maligned defenceman Cam Barker, a former third-overall NHL draft pick who never came close to living up to that pedigree, found the range in Slovakia; he tied for first among KHL blueliners in 2015-16 with 40 points. And we should not forget the mid-season acquisition of NHL veteran defenceman Ľubomír Višňovský, wrapping up a long career with a season in his home country. Despite 39 years and a bad back, which combined to hold him to only nine games after joining Slovan in October, Višňovský managed ten points, and he is apparently ready to go for the playoffs. One concern: the goaltending. Barry Brust, at .920 in save percentage, was almost right on the league average of .9195, but Michael Garnett had a poor year, finishing at .905.
And on that note, the Slovan saga likely ends in round one. Awaiting the Slovaks are mighty CSKA Moscow, regular season champions and the only team to out-shoot Slovan this season (33.88 shots per game). Leading the old Red Army team is of course Alexander Radulov, the KHL’s second-leading scorer with 67 points in 53 games, who will bring his combination of sublime skill, brute strength, and raw emotion to bear. A healthy Stéphane Da Costa doesn’t hurt either, and there’s Geoff Platt as well, and I could go on. Behind those, in addition to the dangerous Nikita Zaitsev on defense, is Ilya Sorokin in net; the 20-year-old posted the KHL’s second-best save percentage this season, .953 in 28 games. This is the best team in the league, period full stop. Finally, CSKA will have no shortage of motivation; losing last season’s Conference Final to SKA after leading three games to none must still rankle.
To put it bluntly, CSKA goal difference this season was +76. Slovan were at +6. The Bratislavans may nick a game in this one, but the Moscow side should take it in no more than five.
(2) Jokerit Helsinki (31-5-5-19) versus (7) Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod (23-10-11-16)
This one could be very interesting indeed. Jokerit are seeded second by virtue of having topped the Bobrov Division, but they actually finished only eight points ahead of Torpedo. The goal difference was even tighter; Jokerit came in at +27, Torpedo at +26. So don’t get too wrapped up in the difference in the seedings. Jokerit started the season well, on the strength of some great goaltending from both Henrik Karlsson and Riku Helenius, but both faded down the stretch, and so did Jokerit, at least a bit. Karlsson finished up with an average-ish sv% of .924, while Helenius had a ghastly .891 at season’s end.
That said, Jokerit are still a good team. They had the KHL’s best powerplay (23.5%), and it will come up against Torpedo’s league-average penalty-killing (83.3%). And the team from the Finnish capital took three shots more per game than did their first-round opponents. Slight differences, but they may turn out to be important. Brandon Kozun was the team’s top point-getter with 49 in 58 games, while Denmark’s Peter Regin potted 17 goals to lead Jokerit in that category. And it was another Dane, Philip Larsen, who starred on defence, scoring 11-25-36 in 52 games.
As for Torpedo, the will look to the nation Latvia for a lot of their help. Kaspars Daugaviņš led the team in scoring with a line of 14-21-35 in 44 games, while the bench is patrolled by his countryman, well-respected head coach Pēteris Skudra. Torpedo probably need to shoot more; their 27.4 shots per game is 15th out of the 16 playoff teams (only Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg were worse). However, this is a tight defensive team, which managed to give up the eighth-fewest goals in the KHL this season, despite only league-average goaltending.
This is a bit of a tough series to get a real read on. However, Jokerit do have the better special teams, and I have already mentioned the three shots more per game. Little things, but we’ll give the Finnish club the nod, in six or seven games.
(3) Lokomotiv Yaroslavl (37-6-2-15) versus (6) SKA St. Petersburg (27-6-7-20)
The team from Yaroslavl finished second in the KHL, a mere two points behind CSKA, and the biggest reason behind that feat was the goaltending of Alexei Murygin. In 34 games, he broke the KHL record for shutouts with 13 and had the league’s best save percentage at .954. Lokomotiv gave up the second-fewest goals in the league, conceding 94 times; only CSKA’s 87 was better, and the third-place team in that category, Avangard Omsk, gave up 120. It was a remarkable performance, and a necessary one; Lokomotiv’s 155 goals scored puts them only tied for 11th among the 16 playoff teams. They do have some weapons up front, as Daniil Apalkov led the team with a decent 43 points in 59 games, and Yegor Averin had 21 goals in 49 games. However, they will miss the playmaking abilities of Petri Kontiola (48 gp, 7-25-32), who is out hurt. In short, Lokomotiv will rely very heavily on Murygin, and Heaven help them if he gets hurt; backup Vitaly Kolesnik was an average goalie this season.
And on the other hand we have SKA St. Petersburg, whose rough start to 2015-16 under Andrei Nazarov makes me look askance at some of the numbers the team compiled over the season. In particular, I do not buy goalie Mikko Koskinen’s .915 sv% on the season; he went through a particularly rough stretch in the weeks before Nazarov was let go (I refer you to this excellent article by Cirno Avery), but recovered to play very well as the campaign went along. He also posted a .936 sv% in last year’s playoffs, so he can most certainly deal with the post-season pressure. In short, SKA will be just fine in net.
And the defending champions have spent much of the season, post-Nazarov, loading up on talent. In have come figures like Nikita Gusev, who arrived from Ugra Khanty-Mansiysk and scored 13-22-35 in 33 games, and Steve Moses, who returned to the KHL from the Nashville Predators organization to score 10 goals in only 21 games. I could name others, and they were added to a lineup that already included the likes of Vadim Shipachyov (17-43-60 in 54 games) and Yevgeny Dadonov (59 gp, 23-23-46). And I have not even mentioned Ilya Kovalchuk, who almost quietly scored 49 points in 50 games.
Will it be enough firepower to drive SKA past Murygin and Lokomotiv? I think it just might. This is a series that could go either way, quite easily, but I’m going to pick what the standings say is an upset, and call SKA in seven games.
(4) HK Sochi (30-4-10-16) versus (5) Dynamo Moscow (27-8-8-17)
Hands up with you had HK Sochi not only making the playoffs, but earning home-ice advantage in the first round. The team from the Black Sea coast was one the KHL’s huge surprises this season, especially as rumours of financial trouble continued to fly around the team. Sochi’s secret was a simple one: they scored a lot of goals (175), fourth-most in the league, and the fact that they took the fifth-most shots tells us that this was not smoke and mirrors. Leading the way were forwards André Petersson (45 gp, 22-22-44) and Andrei Kostitsyn (45 gp, 20-19-39), but the big story was probably young defenseman Ziyat Paigin. He went from playing for Ak Bars Kazan’s farm team to logging big minutes at Sochi, being named to the All-Star game, and getting the call to the Russian national team. As a mid-season acquisition, he played only 37 games for Sochi, but his line of 9-18-27 led his team’s defensemen in goals, assists, and points.
Now, when it comes to preventing goals, Sochi are not so good; they gave up 149, tied with SKA for worst among the West Conference playoff teams. Veteran goalie Konstantin Barulin was decent (.926 sv%) but no more than that, and there’s no help coming if he gets hurt.
As for Dynamo, it has been a rough season by the standards of the famous old team. Like their first-round opponents, there have had to endure talk of money troubles, and on the ice they have failed to impose themselves as in some previous years. However, they gave up the fourth-fewest goals in the league (126), and their 167 goals scored was well above the league average as well, so there is a good team in there. Furthermore, they will play in front of an excellent netminder in Alexander Yeryomenko (.936 sv%). And finally they have one of the league’s stud scoring defensemen in Mat Robinson, who posted a line of 14-24-38 in 58 games this year.
Dynamo’s problem in this one, however, is injuries. They will head through the playoffs without Mārtiņš Karsums, a big part of their offence, who is out for the season with a shoulder injury. And defenceman Ilya Nikulin, an experienced two-way rearguard, is also out. Those are big holes in the lineup.
This should be a close series, as befits the 4 versus 5 matchup. Normally, I would give the edge to Dynamo and their tough defense and goaltending, but those injuries worry me, and HK Sochi’s scoring ability is for real. This could go seven, but I think the Black Sea side takes it in the end.
As mentioned, the first round of the West Conference playoffs begins on Sunday. And we’ll preview the East tomorrow as well — those series begin on Monday. Thanks for reading!