Gagarin Cup Playoff Preview: Round 2
We have safely arrived, most of us anyway, at the second round of the KHL’s Gagarin Cup playoffs, with the opening games set for Monday! Round 1 in the West Conference saw three of the four series end in what the standings say are upsets; apart from top-seeded CSKA Moscow, only the fifth-, sixth-, and seventh-ranked teams are left. The East, meanwhile, went entirely according to the form book, with the top seeds winning every series. So what does the second round have in store? Read on, for rampant speculation in the form of a break-down of each of the Conference Semifinal pairings…
(1) CSKA Moscow vs. (7) Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod
As noted, CSKA have what appears to be an easy path to the Finals, with only the low playoff seeds awaiting them in the West. And Red Army did nothing in the first round to suggest that there are any problems, as they ushered tough, hard-working, but ultimately over-matched Slovan Bratislava into the off-season via a businesslike four-game sweep. CSKA got production from the usual suspects: Alexander Radulov had five points in the four games, while the finally-healthy Stéphane Da Costa chipped in three goals. Some less likely figures contributed as well, as Kirill Petrov scored three times after finding the net only twice in 15 regular season games since he returned to Russia from the AHL.
As for Torpedo, I thought heading into their opening-round series against second seed Jokerit Helsinki that they would likely push the Finnish team quite hard but lose in the end. I was half right; Torpedo pushed Jokerit right out of the playoffs in six bad-tempered but fast-paced games. It was team effort, too; 11 different Torpedo players scored goals, as Dmitry Syomin and Vladimir Galuzin (remember that name) led the way points-wise with identical 1-5-6 scoring lines. Torpedo dominated the physical side of things, particularly, as Arto Paalovara notes, in front of the Jokerit net. So can they pull of another upset?
Probably not, to be blunt. With no disrespect at all to Jokerit, CSKA are an entirely different proposition. For one thing, guys like Radulov will not be worried about Torpedo’s physical play. More importantly, though, CSKA have young Ilya Sorokin in net, and his .959 sv% in the first round suggests that he will be much tougher to beat than Jokerit’s Henrik Karlsson, who could muster only a poor .894 (small sample size alert in both cases, of course). Torpedo will bring everything they’ve got, but CSKA should take this in about five games.
(5) Dynamo Moscow vs. (6) SKA St. Petersburg
Sometimes you get it completely wrong. I was fairly sure that HK Sochi were going to handle Dynamo in the first round, but the Moscow team not only won out but did so in four straight, conceding only three goals in the process. That last fact turns our gaze to their goaltending, where we find Alexander Yeryomenko, newly signed to a contract extension at Dynamo and making that look like a smart decision by the team brass. Yeryomenko’s .978 sv% and 0.66 GAA tell the story of Dynamo’s first round stroll, and he will be even more important come the second. For one thing, Dynamo’s win over Sochi came despite the absence through injury of forward Mārtiņš Karsums and blueliner Ilya Nikulin; both key players, and both still missing as the dawn of the second round approaches.
And Dynamo will be facing an SKA St. Petersburg team that frankly thrashed Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, themselves a very good team this season. Despite losing the opener, and then having the Ilya Kovalchuk situation blow up in their faces, SKA took the opening round in but five games, and did not concede a goal in the last three — three! — of those. Mikko Koskinen’s goalie-ing numbers (.968 sv% and 0.95 GAA) rival those of Yeryomenko. Then we toss in the umpteen scoring weapons SKA have got — the likes of Vadim Shipachyov, Nikita Gusev, Yevgeny Dadonov, Pavel Buchnevich, and so on and so forth — and we can foresee a tough series for Dynamo.
Oh, and SKA may have Ilya Kovalchuk back after all. I confess myself surprised, but unconfirmed reports emerged today that Kovalchuk will indeed be in the lineup when the series opens. Whether all is truly forgiven on both sides, and what effect Kovi’s return will have if it does happen, remain unknowns at this point. However, with or without Kovalchuk, SKA are simply too strong for Dynamo at this point, and they should be able to take the series in about six.
(1) Avangard Omsk Oblast vs. (4) Salavat Yulaev Ufa
Like CSKA in the West, the East’s top seed Avangard had a routine time in Round 1, sweeping away Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk, although it should be noted that only one of the four games was decided by as many as two goals, and that one involved an empty-netter. Czech goalie Dominik Furch was very good against Neftekhimik, with a .962 sv% over the four games, and Avangard got just enough offense from variety of sources (Ilya Zubov and Martin Erat led the way with four points apiece). All very much according to script.
However, unlike CSKA, Avangard will not have the luxury of facing an unusually low-seeded opponent in Round 2. Instead, they get Salavat Yulaev Ufa, fresh off surviving the best of the wight first-round series. Against Ak Bars Kazan, the team from Ufa ran out to a 3-1 lead in games, before things went a bit haywire. After Ak Bars narrowed the gap in Game 5, they took Game 6 by a score of 8-0 — the most lopsided shutout victory in KHL playoff history. Credit to Salavat Yulaev though; when other teams might have crumbled under the circumstances, they got themselves back together to take Game 7 by a 3-2 score and advance, and they should come into the series against Avangard on a bit of a psychological high at least.
Linus Omark led the way for Salavat Yulaev with eight points against Ak Bars, but there’s scoring to be found up and down their roster. In fact, every Ufan skater who played more than one game in Round 1 recorded at least a point. Now, Avangard’s Furch will win the goaltending battle against Niklas Svedberg of Salavat Yulaev, and the Omsk team will be better-rested coming in. However, I think Salavat Yulaev’s sheer depth of talent will tell in the end, and they will take the series in six or seven games.
(2) Metallurg Magnitgorsk vs. (3) Sibir Novosibirsk Oblast
Metallurg were hardly convincing in their six-game opening-round win over Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg, although they did get the job done in the end. On the bright side, Sergei Mozyakin seems to be scoring again after a terrible post-Christmas slump; the KHL’s all-time leading scorer recorded four points in the last three games against Avtomobilist. On the other hand, Metallurg’s leading scorer in Round 1, Oskar Osala (4gp, 3-2-5), went down with a season-ending injury. And there are concerns about the health of veteran goalie Vasily Koshechkin. That last may be a major problem, as Koshechkin was perfect — two shutouts — in the two games he managed to play in Round 1. His understudy, 19-year-old Ilya Samsonov, had his difficulties, posting a pedestrian .912 sv% in the other four matches (Samsonov is going to be very good, but maybe not just yet).
As for Sibir, despite their 12-hour odyssey on the way home from Game 4, they closed out Admiral Vladivostok in five games, and looked good doing it. Alexander Salák was superb in goal, giving up only four goals in five games and recording a .975 sv%. On the scoring front, meanwhile, Sibir got at least one point from seven different defencemen and at least a goal from eight different forwards — teamwork! Sergei Shumakov, who is fast becoming a real player to watch in the KHL, was the main catalyst up front with three goals and three assists in the series. And unlike their second-round opponents, Sibir do not seem to have any pressing injury worries.
This is a rubber-match of sorts, as these two teams have met at this stage in each of the last two playoffs, with each team winning once. Metallurg, on their way to winning the Gagarin Cup, swept Sibir in 2014, while the Novosibirskians took last year’s meeting in five games. For 2016’s get-together, Mozyakin’s return to form poses a real worry for Sibir — he’s flat-out unstoppable when he’s “on.” However, Metallurg’s injury woes and struggles against lowly Avtomobilist, combined with Sibir’s depth and all-round strength, lead me suspect that it will be the team from Novosibirsk that takes the series. This one, however, should get to six or seven games before it’s done.
As noted at the beginning, the second gets started on Monday with the West Conference openers, while the East Conference series hit the ice for the first time on Tuesday. Also on Monday or Tuesday, we’ll have a set of news notes up at the blog. Thank you for reading!