Weekly Russian Hockey News Notes: February 29th, 2016
Time for a new set of news notes! In this one, we’ll update you on the KHL playoffs (including Mr. Kovalchuk’s situation), talk about an exciting week ahead in Russian women’s hockey, and chat about some other things as well. Read on!
A week in, and the Ilya Kovalchuk situation seems no closer to being settled. The now-former Captain of SKA St. Petersburg has not played for the team since Game 1 of their series against Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, and news reports today indicated that he will not return to the lineup in this post-season (h/t to Patricia Teter for sending along that article). That, combined with persistent rumours that Kovalchuk was in touch with NHL teams about a possible return to North America, suggested heavily that his time with SKA was at an end.
But, then came more reports, with indications that Kovalchuk could be back on the ice for SKA in the second round of the playoffs. And so once again we wait. For my part, I suspect that Kovalchuk has indeed played his last for SKA, but we shall see. Much may depend on who SKA’s coach will be in 2016-17. Clearly, there is some sort of problem between Kovalchuk and current bench boss Sergei Zubov, and there have also been mumurs (much denied) of bad blood between the player and current Russian national team Oleg Znarok, who is rumoured to be next in line at SKA. In that regard, it was interesting to see Kovalchuk taking in Game 3 against Lokomotiv from the press box, while sitting directly behind Vyacheslav Bykov, who led SKA to their Gagarin Cup triumph last season before unexpectedly stepping down.
Kovalchuk or no Kovalchuk, the KHL playoffs continue on. Here’s a quick run-down of how the first-round series are going:
- (1) CSKA Moscow beat (8) Slovan Bratislava, 4 games to 0 — Everything went according to script in this one for CSKA, with Alexander Radulov recording six points (1 goal, 5 assists) in the sweep.
- (7) Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod lead (2) Jokerit Helsinki, 3 games to 2 — Jokerit avoided elimination by winning Game 5 on Monday, but need to do something about their goaltending. Henrik Karlsson has played every minute of the series for them, and has a sv% of .896, which is not good.
- (6) SKA St. Petersburg beat (3) Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, 4 games to 1 — Off-ice turmoil? What off-ice turmoil? After SKA leveled the series with a 3-2 victory in Game 2, their Finnish netminder Mikko Koskinen didn’t concede a single goal the rest of the way.
- (5) Dynamo Moscow beat (4) HK Sochi, 4 games to 0 — A very disappointing way for Sochi to end a good season, as they bowed out meekly to Dynamo, scoring only three goals in the four games.
- (1) Avangard Omsk beat (8) Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk, 4 games to 0 — This one was closer than it looks; Neftekhimik lost once in overtime, twice more by a single goal, and once by a margin of two including an empty-netter.
- (2) Metallurg Magnitogorsk tied with (7) Avtomobilist Yekaterinbug, 2 games apiece — Metallurg have split the goaltending duties in this one, and the results are… weird. In two games with Vasily Koshechkin between the pipes, they’ve outscored Avtomobilist 9-0. With young Ilya Samsonov, they’ve been outscored 5-2. Very odd.
- (3) Sibir Novosibirsk lead (6) Admiral Vladivostok, 3 games to 1 — Despite a 2-0 Game 4 loss, Sibir are well in control of this series so far. And (see story below) they now have ample motivation to finish off their Far-Eastern opponents.
- (4) Salavat Yulaev Ufa lead (5) Ak Bars Kazan, 3 games to 1 — Where was this Salavat Yulaev team at the beginning of the season? Although they stumbled in Game 3, a 3-0 loss in Kazan, the Ufans have scored 13 times in their three victories, while giving up only four.
The junior MHL regular season has wrapped up, and the playoff matches are set (those games do not begin until March 8th, but here are the opening-round match-ups:
- (1) Loko Yaroslavl vs. (8) Amurskie Tigry Khabarovsk
- (2) Rossiya U18 vs. (7) Krasnaya Armiya Moscow
- (3) Dynamo St. Petersburg vs. (6) MHK Spartak Moscow
- (4) Almaz Cherepovets vs. (5) SKA-1946 St. Petersburg
- (1) Omskie Yastreby Omsk vs. (8) Siberskie Snaipery Novosibirsk
- (2) Stalnye Lisy Magnitogorsk vs. (7) Kuznetskie Medvedi Novokuznetsk
- (3) Tolpar Ufa vs. (6) Snezhnye Barsy Astana
- (4) Chaika Nizhny Novgorod vs. (5) Reaktor Nizhnekamsk
Chaika, seeded fourth in the East going in, are the defending champions.
The Women’s Hockey League season will wrap up this week, and we will have our champion by the time the next news notes go up. As discussed previously, it is most likely to be Tornado Moscow Oblast taking the top spot when all is said and done. The team from Dmitrov, a little bit north of the capital, needs either a point from one of their remaining two games against Biryusa Krasnoyarsk, or for Agidel Ufa to drop a point in either of their matches against SKIF Nizhny Novgorod.
The real fight may be for third place. Biryusa are in command, five points ahead of Dynamo St. Petersburg with two to play for each team. However, Dynamo hold the tie-breaker, so Biryusa need to take two points out of those last two games, or have Dynamo drop two. Furthermore, as noted above, Biryusa’s last two matches are against mighty Tornado, while Dynamo will face SK Sverdlovsk Oblast, who have lost all 22 games in regulation while being outscored 170-36. In short, this could get quite interesting!
As for the individual races, Agidel’s Olga Sosina seems to have the scoring title fairly secure, with an eight-point lead on Anna Shokhina of Tornado. The goals standings are much closer: Tornado’s Alevtina Shtaryova currently leads with 28 markers on the season, just one ahead of Sosina.
The coming week will also see an inaugural champion determined in the League of Women’s Hockey — aka the Divizion Amazonki — Russia’s top amateur women’s hockey circuit (we have discussed it here a few times). Twenty-two teams, divided into four regional groups took part in the first season of the league this winter, and it is the winners of these groups who will meet at Moscow’s VTB Ice Palace on March 5th to determine the national champion. The “Final Four” teams are: Grad-1 Moscow, Forvard Kazan, Grizli Novosibirsk, and Severyanka Cherepovets.
On March 6th, the season will officially wrap up with an exhibition game between a league All-Star team and the Russian women’s national squad. In next week’s news notes, we’ll bring you up to date on everything that happened!
Sticking with the women’s game, a couple of Russian players were honoured this week for their performances in Canadian university hockey. Forwards Iya Gavrilova and Alexandra Vafina, both of whom ply their trade for the University of Calgary, were named to the Canada West 1st All-Star Team. Most deservedly so, too: Gavrilova led the entire CIS in goals (20), assists (23), points (43), and plus-minus (+28). Vafina, meanwhile, was fourth in Canada in assists (21), and second in points (35) and plus-minus (+22). Barring the unforeseen, both will be expected to play major roles for Team Russia at the World Championship in British Columbia beginning at the end of March.
We now return to the KHL for some bits and pieces of news. Slovan Bratislava’s first-round elimination by CSKA Moscow marked then end of the fine career of Slovak defenceman Ľubomír Višňovský. The 39-year-old native of Topoľčany came up through the youth system at Slovan in the 1990s, and thereafter spent 14 seasons in the NHL with the Kings, Oilers, Ducks, and Islanders. Known as a fantastic skater and passer, he posted a career NHL scoring line of 883 gp, 128-367-495. Internationally, Višňovský represented his country at four Olympics, and among his many World Championship appearances was the 2002 tournament when Slovakia shocked the hockey world by winning the gold medal.
After playing for the Islanders in 2014-15, Višňovský returned to Slovan for one last hurrah mid-way through this campaign. Although injuries and age restricted him to nine regular season games, he was still able to score 2-8-10 over that span before going pointless in Slovan’s four playoff games. At the end of Game 4 in Bratislava, he said farewell to the fans in an emotional on-ice ceremony (see video above). Here’s wishing Ľubomír Višňovský all the best in his retirement!
I mentioned above that Sibir Novosibirsk may have some extra motivation going into Game 5 at home in their series against Admiral Vladivostok. Why is this? Well, the Sibir players and staff had a heck of a time getting home from Vladivostok after Game 4. In fact, they spent five and a half hours, at night, in an unheated aircraft on the tarmac at the Vladivostok airport, which meant that the entire trip took 12 hours. Airport authorities have said that there was a problem with the plane, but Sibir remain understandably unhappy about the whole thing. It is somewhat reminiscent of the Gagarin Cup Finals of 2014 between Metallurg Magnitogorsk and Lev Prague, which saw both teams suffer airport inconveniences with gamesmanship suspected to lie behind at least some of it.
The airport incident may have some effect on a potential off-season player move. A rumour went around this past week that Alexander Salák, Sibir’s superb Czech goalie, might be on the move to Barys Astana this summer. For the Kazakh team, that would be quite the coup; Barys have long been known as a squad that scores plenty of goals but gives up far too many as well. If they could fix that defensive frailty — and Salák would most definitely help with that — they would have a formidable team.
After spending all night on the aircraft in Vladivostok, however, Salák indicated on Monday that his enthusiasm for staying in the KHL might have waned. We shall see; it should be noted both that his comments were made not long after Sibir finally got back to Novosibirsk, and that the 29-year-old goalie does have something of a reputation for being temperamental. It is entirely possible that Salák will rethink matters when he has cooled down a bit — Barys fans certainly hope so, in any case!
Another player transaction of note this week: Dynamo Moscow have re-signed veteran forward Alexei Tereshchenko to a two-year contract. The 35-year-old has 244 points in 464 KHL games (including both regular season and playoffs), and won the Gagarin Cup with Ak Bars Kazan in 2009-10. He also represented Russia at the Sochi Olympics.
Monday was trade deadline day in the National Hockey League, and it saw a couple of Russian players change teams. 2013 Los Angeles Kings draft pick Valentin Zykov is on his way to the Carolina Hurricanes as part of a deal that sent Kris Versteeg the other way. Zykov, a winger in his first professional season, had scored 7-7-14 in 43 games for the Kings’ AHL farm team, the Ontario Reign, in 2015-16. He is expected to join Carolina’s AHL affiliate in Charlotte.
A bigger deal was the one that saw forward Sergei Plotnikov sent from the Pittsburgh Penguins to the Arizona Coyotes for a pick and a prospect. Plotnikov scored 36 points in 56 games for Lokomotiv Yaroslavl during the 2014-15 KHL regular season before signing with the Penguins over the summer. However, he was used sparingly in Pittsburgh, and managed only two assists in 32 games; the Coyotes represent a chance for a fresh start.
And finally, our regular update on the team of players we’ve been following this season, three of whom are still going in the KHL playoffs:
G Juha Metsola (Amur Khabarovsk): 44 gp, 2.15 GAA, .927 sv%. Missed playoffs, season over.
D Ziyat Paigin (HK Sochi): Regular Season — 45 gp, 9-19-28, +5, 10 PiM, 16:00 TOI/gm. Playoffs — 4 gp, 0-0-0, -3, o PiM, 21:46 TOI/gm. A disappointing end to the season for him, but it should not detract too much from Paigin’s spectacular break-out year.
D Nikita Zaitsev (CSKA Moscow): Regular Season — 46 gp, 8-18-26, +21, 20 PiM, 21:01 TOI/gm. Playoffs — 4 gp, 1-0-1, +2, 0 PiM, 21:17 TOI/gm. On to the second round for Zaitsev and his CSKA team-mates.
F Nikolai Prokhorkin (Salavat Yulaev Ufa): Regular Season — 55 gp, 19-17-36, +10, 91 PiM, 17:08 TOI/gm. Playoffs — 4 gp, 1-1-2, +2, 4 PiM, 18:37 TOI/gm. After a hot start to the series against Ak Bars, he has cooled off in the last couple of games. Still contributing, though.
F Olli Palola (Vityaz Moscow Oblast): 27 gp, 1-4-5, -8, 10 PiM, 13:42 TOI/gm. Missed playoffs, season over.
F Sergei Mozyakin (Metallurg Magnitogorsk): Regular Season — 57 gp, 32-35-67, +11, 0 PiM: 21:01 TOI/gm. Playoffs — 4 gp, 0-1-1, +0, 0 PiM, 20:41 TOI/gm. He finally got his first point of these playoffs in Game 4 against Avtomobilist, but is only 1-1-2 in his last ten games overall.
And that is all for this set of news notes; they’ll be back early next week with another update. Thank you for reading!