Gagarin Cup Playoff Preview: East Conference
The West Conference dropped the opening pucks of the playoffs on Sunday, and on Monday it will be the East’s turn. Below the jump, we will check out the four match-ups from that conference, and make a prediction or two as well!
(team records are in the format: regulation wins – OT/SO wins – OT/SO losses – regulation losses)
(1) Avangard Omsk Oblast (27-6-13-14) vs. (8) Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk (20-7-12-21)
Two below-average powerplays meet two top-five penalty-killing units? Yep. Two teams both among the league’s elite in save percentage? Yes as well. Avangard versus Neftekhimik may not be a feast of goals. Avangard, who ambled their way to top spot in the East this season, are actually a decent enough scoring team, normally; they were 11th in the KHL in that category, with 2.60 goals per game. However, two concerns: first of all, they were 17th in shots per game, so they may have had luck on their side. Secondly, they’ve got a major injury problem with leading goal-scorer Vladimír Sobotka (44 gp, 18-16-34) on the shelf at least to start the playoffs. That puts some pressure on veteran forwards Alexander Perezhogin (56 gp, 15-21-36) and Martin Erat (40 gp, 5-19-24) to step up. On the other hand, Avangard’s goaltending really is very good. Czech netminder Dominik Furch recorded a .933 sv% (the league average was .9195) over 49 games, and young backup Denis Kostin was at .929 in 17 games.
As for Neftekhimik, they nosed into the playoffs on the last day, their first appearance in the post-season since 2012-13. Here, too, the goaltending has been the story, as the Neftekhimik’s .935 team save percentage was best in the East, and third-best in the KHL. Alexander Sudnitsin posted a .933 in 44 games, and Ivan Lisutin, acquired mid-season for depth at the position, was even better with .946 in 17 games. Scoring goals was a problem, as Neftekhimik’s 130 were the lowest of any of the 16 playoff teams, but bad luck played into things here. Neftekhimik actually took the sixth-most shots of any team in the league, but scored on only 6.91% of them, second-worst, overall. Tatarstan’s “little” team will be hoping that local boy Bogdan Yakimov, 3-1-4 in 11 games since returning from Bakersfield of the AHL, finds the range again soon. In the meantime, their best scorer is Mikhail Zhukov (59 gp, 16-20-36).
Avangard are the better team here, mostly on account of depth. However, this should be closer than the usual 1 vs 8 matchup. The Omsk boys win it, but it may take them six or seven games.
(2) Metallurg Magnitogorsk (25-13-2-20) vs. (7) Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg (21-9-11-19)
Tense times in a certain Czech household, as the two Kovář brothers — Metallurg’s high-scoring forward Jan and goalie Jakub of Avtomobilist — confront each other in this one! Actually, Avtomobilist’s goaltending suffered a bit this year, as Jakub, the elder of the two brothers at 27, was beset by nagging injuries and managed only a .914 save percentage. It will be interesting to see if his nominal back-up, Igor Ustinsky (.920 sv% this season in 25 games) gets a look during this series. Avtomobilist do have some power up front; 20-year-old Anatoly Golyshev scored 25 goals this season, fourth-best in the KHL, and Finland’s Eero Elo popped in another 18. But the team from Yekaterinburg do not shoot enough (third-fewest shots per game in the KHL this season), and are well below league average in both penalty-killing and the powerplay.
Meanwhile, little brother Jan Kovář (he’s 25) had another fine season over at Metallurg, scoring 20-32-52 in 58 games, and even that was good only for third in points on a stacked team. Among Magnitka’s other weapons are Danis Zaripov (60 gp, 22-32-54) and Wojtek Wolski (54 gp, 18-29-47), while Chris Lee (60 gp, 9-28-37) contributes to the scoring from defence. Forward Alexander Semin, prized away from the Montreal Canadiens in mid-season, scored 5-9-14 in 20 games, and should not be forgotten about either. Metallurg are decent in goal, too; both Vasily Koshechkin and 18-year-old Ilya Samsonov posted save percentages of .925, above the league average. This is a deep, deep, lineup.
And I have not even mentioned the sublime Sergei Mozyakin. The KHL’s greatest player of all time won the league scoring titles (both points and goals) yet again, with a line of 57 gp, 32-25-67. He managed it despite a late-season slump which produced only 11 points in 13 games after New Year’s, with four of those points coming in one match. Slump notwithstanding, he’s still the most dangerous scorer in the KHL, and it’s no surprise that Metallurg led the league this year with 180 goals.
The teams’ respective goal differences — +42 for Metallurg and -13 for Avtomobilist — tell their own tale here. Jan should end up the happier of the two Kovářs, after his Magnitogorsk team takes it in five or six games.
(3) Sibir Novosibirsk Oblast (24-12-9-15) vs. (6) Admiral Vladivostok (25-8-4-23)
Sibir Novosibirsk are a very nicely-balanced team, as shown by the fact that they managed to finish comfortably in the top half of the league in goals despite having only one player over .600 points per game, Sweden’s David Ullström at .757. And he played only 37 matches due to injury (he is back for the playoffs). As you might glean from that information, the Sibir lineup is full of guys of the “extremely useful but unheralded” type; there is very little drop-off between their first line and their third. Sergei Shumakov led the team with 20 goals, but it really does not matter; if Shumakov is not scoring on a particular night, there is a good chance that somebody else is. And Sibir put that industrious roster out there in front of one of the KHL’s best netminders. Alexander Salák’s save percentage, a stellar .938 over 52 games, had him third in the KHL, and best in the East Conference.
Admiral Vladivostok, returning to the post-season after missing out in 2014-15, are something of a similar outfit, at least when it comes to scoring. They scored two more goals than Sibir over the season, and did so without a single player over .700 points per game. David Booth joined the far-easterners in mid-season after failing to secure NHL employment, and scored .696 points per game over 23 contests to lead Admiral in that category. Journeyman forward Konstantin Makarov was the team’s top sniper, with a career-best 18 goals in 55 games. Like Sibir, this is a team that got things done without a lot of star power.
The big difference, and it will most likely decide this series, is in net. While Sibir can roll out one of the KHL’s best in Salák, Admiral’s two young goaltenders combined to produce a team save percentage of .909, fourth-worst in the league and lowest of any team in the playoffs. Now, goalies are famously weird and unpredictable, so there remains the chance that either 21-year-old Ivan Nalimov (.908 sv% in 39 games) or 24-year-old Igor Bobkov (.910 sv% in 28) will suddenly go on a hot streak. However, until and unless that happens, Sibir should take this one in five or six games as they seek to make the Conference Finals for a second year in row and possibly even go beyond.
(4) Salavat Yulaev Ufa (29-5-4-22) vs. (5) Ak Bars Kazan (25-6-9-20)
Before this season began, I had Salavat Yulaev as my pick to represent the East in the Gagarin Cup Finals, but that was before a truly dreadful run in the Fall had them struggling just to make the playoffs at all. Obviously, the ship was somewhat righted in the end, but concerns remain, and the primary one is their goaltending, which was only slightly better than Admiral’s. Niklas Svedberg, a solid backup for the Boston Bruins in 2014-15, arrived last summer, but the move has not worked out; he posted a below-average .916 save percentage this season for Salavat Yulaev in 53 games. With the team’s second option, Vladimir Sokhatsky, having a miserable time of it (.876 sv% in 11 games), there was no choice but to stick with Svedberg, and it is he who will take them into the playoffs.
But Salavat Yulaev were always going to score goals, and so they did, finding the net 179 times this season. Only Metallurg Magnitogorsk outscored them, and that by a single goal. Sweden’s Linus Omark led the way for the club from Bashkortostan, with a line of 18-39-57 in 60 games, some ways ahead of Igor Grigorenko (55 gp, 18-26-44). Omark reunited with his old Oklahoma City Barons line-mate Teemu Hartikainen, and it was a productive partnership; Hartikainen scored 10-29-39 in 54 contests. The team enjoyed a balanced attack, too, as Salavat Yulaev lacked even a single 20-goal man this season, but had nine (!), including two defencemen, who scored in double-digits (Nikolai Prokhorkin led the team with 19).
As for Ak Bars Kazan, it has been a difficult season for last year’s beaten finalists, and fifth in the conference is a disappointing spot for them. Ak Bars struggled to score, as their 143 goals on the season ranks them 15th out of the 16 playoff teams. Like Salavat Yulaev, Ak Bars had nobody in the 20-goal club; unlike their first-round opponents, however, only four of the men from Kazan managed to hit even ten. Justin Azevedo had a nice season (59 gp, 17-36-53), tied with Mikhail Varnakov for the team goal-scoring lead, but that was about it.
What might save Ak Bars’ season is the goaltending. A rough start to the season in that department, after last year’s playoff hero Anders Nilsson departed for North America, saw them bring in Stanislav Galimov from CSKA Moscow at the deadline. He promptly posted a jaw-dropping .948 save percentage over 14 games. He was good in last year’s playoffs, too: .933 sv% in eight games for CSKA. In short, it was a great move by the team.
And so here we have the old “unstoppable force meets immovable object” scenario in this one. And a useful rule of thumb, in the playoffs, is to go with the latter when in doubt. This series should go the distance, but I think Ak Bars take it in seven.
And so ends the East Conference preview! The games themselves start on Monday, as noted, and tomorrow Tuesday we’ll check out what happened in the weekly news notes. Thanks for reading!