Gagarin Cup Playoff Preview: Conference Finals
Tuesday sees the opening face-off of the KHL’s Conference Finals, which means that we are now down to only four teams left standing. Read on, keeping in mind that all the sample sizes at this point are small, and we will take a look at those teams, and their match-ups, and say what we can say about who might advance to play for the Gagarin Cup!
(1) CSKA Moscow vs. (6) SKA St. Petersburg
Well, here we are in the Conference Finals, and for the second straight season the West matchup will feature the two old Army teams. You may remember last year’s meeting between the two, which saw CSKA sprint out to a three games to none lead, only to have SKA rebound spectacularly, win the last four, and advance to the Final. Can we hope for similar fireworks again? Probably not, but this should be a good series nonetheless.
For CSKA, the playoffs have so far passed largely without incident; Slovan Bratislava, swept in four straight, and Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod, who succumbed after five games, were willing but ultimately over-matched opponents. CSKA have scored 3.0 goals per game, second-best among the surviving playoff teams, with Alexander Radulov (9 gp, 2-7-9) leading the squad in points — no surprise there. However, it has been a real team effort for Red Army; 22 skaters have at least a point, and 13 have scored goals (SKA, for comparison, have 15 point-getters and 11 men with goals, and have played two more games). CSKA’s 32 shots taken per game lead the KHL playoffs as well.
And as good as CSKA have been at team offense, they have been better when it comes to preventing goals. In these playoffs, they have given up 1.44 goals per game, best among the four semi-finalists, and against Torpedo they conceded only 19 shots per match (their average for the whole playoffs is just 21.78, and that includes one overtime game). That last may be important, as there is some minor evidence that goalie Ilya Sorokin is starting to struggle a bit under the strain of his first KHL playoffs as a starting netminder. The 20-year-old posted a sparkling .957 sv% in round 1, but followed it up with an .899 in the series against Torpedo. Small sample size and all that, but those numbers must be something of a concern with SKA on the menu.
It will be important for Sorokin and CSKA’s defence to be at their best, because SKA themselves are giving up only 1.45 goals per game. The majority of that can be laid at the feet of Finnish goalie Mikko Koskinen, as SKA are not nearly as stingy as their opponents when it comes to shots against (30.18 per game in these playoffs, although that does include two overtime contests). Koskinen, in 11 games, already has five shutouts, including a playoff-record 215:20 without a goal against. In fact, in SKA’s eight victories so far, Koskinen has been beaten only five times. As a result, his team got by Lokomotiv Yaroslavl in five games, not conceding a goal in the last three of those, and then overcame Dynamo Moscow in six (one goal against in the last three games of that series). Koskinen’s sv% of .952 is second in the KHL so far this post-season.
Bizarrely, it is up front that SKA may have difficulties. It’s hard to imagine, knowing the recent history of this team, but they are currently last among the four remaining squads in both goals per game (2.45) and shots per game (28.18). That said, they do have the league’s two top scorers in this post-season — Vadim Shipachyov (11 gp, 7-9-16) and Nikita Gusev (11 gp, 5-9-14) — but after those two the drop-off in scoring is significant. Shipachyov and Gusev have scored 12 of SKA’s 27 goals in these playoffs, and that’s an awful lot of eggs in just two baskets if anything goes wrong.
There are two big plot-lines going in this series. First of all, what psychological residue, if any, is left over from last year’s epic encounter between these teams? Will CSKA’s desire for revenge carry them to the Final, or will SKA channel whatever they channeled in the last four games of the 2015 series and roll on? Time will tell. The other big story is Ilya Kovalchuk. The ex-Captain of SKA has played only four games this post-season, recording no points and seeing his team go 1-3 in those contests. With Kovi a healthy scratch, SKA are 7-0, and while it is dangerous to put too much weight on the presence or absence of one forward in judging a team’s record, those are very interesting numbers. Early indications are the Kovalchuk has not joined SKA on their trip to Moscow to open the series; whether we see him later on will likely depend on how things go in the first couple of games.
In the end, then, we seem to have CSKA as superior in both offense and defence, while SKA have the edge, and perhaps even a big one, in goaltending. And this is the stage of the season where netminding can be so, so important. This should be close once again, but I see CSKA coming out on top in seven games.
(2) Metallurg Magnitogorsk vs. (4) Salavat Yulaev Ufa
This should be a fun one! Based on the season’s work, both these teams know how to fill the net, although as we shall see, their fortunes vary considerably when it comes to preventing the goals against.
Metallurg struggled in their first round series, needing six games to dispose of a pesky Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg side, then eliminated Sibir Novosibirsk, a much tougher proposition, in only five, albeit not without controversy. So what changed? First of all, the KHL’s all-time best player returned to form. Sergei Mozyakin was held pointless in the first three games against Avtomobilist, as a months-long slump for him continued. Since then, he has gone on an eight-game points streak, with five goals and seven assists over that span. Some team-mates have come along for the ride, too; after zero points in the first four playoff games, Danis Zaripov has scored 3-5-8 in the last seven. Jan Kovář, meanwhile, had two points in the first four games, and in the following seven has scored 3-6-9. While Alexander Syomin (11 gp, 5-2-7) has cooled off after a nice start to the playoffs and Oskar Osala (4 gp, 3-2-5) is now lost for the season due to injury, the re-emergence of the “big three” has more than compensated.
The other thing that has changed for Metallurg is that they have their starting goalie back healthy again. Vasily Koshechkin was bothered by a nagging injury against Avtomobilist, which restricted him to two games in the series — he earned shutouts in both of them. His understudy, 19-year-old Ilya Samsonov, did enough to keep Metallurg going, and his .919 sv% is far from dreadful. However, after returning to health and playing all five games against Sibir (minus one period when Samsonov took over in relief), Koshechkin leads the league in save percentage with .953 over seven games (note, once again, the size of the sample), just a hair ahead of SKA’s Koskinen. That is a very useful thing for a team that already possesses ample firepower up front.
Salavat Yulaev Ufa, meanwhile, have taken the tough road to the Conference Finals, with each of their first two series going to the maximum seven games. In both of those matchups — against Ak Bars Kazan in Round 1 and Avangard Omsk in Round 2 — the Ufans had a chance to close things out in six games (in fact, they could have finished Avangard in five), but spurned both opportunities; the 8-0 loss in Game 6 against Ak Bars was a strange one to say the least! However, in both cases they recovered to win Game 7, so let us give them credit at least for resilience.
Salavat Yulaev were second in the KHL in scoring during regular season (only Metallurg were ahead, by one goal), but they have not quite enjoyed the same success in the playoffs, scoring only 2.43 goals per game as compared to Metallurg’s 3.09. The good news is that a large part of that may be luck — the Ufa team’s shooting percentage has dropped from 9.98 to 8.67, which represents a not-inconsequential five or six goals over the course of the first two rounds. Metallurg’s shooting percentage, meanwhile, has gone from 9.22 in the regular season to 10.42 in the playoffs, so if there is any regression to come, it should be in Salavat Yulaev’s favour. As far as individual players are concerned, Linus Omark, at least, has done his bit — the little Swedish forward has a line of 14 gp, 5-9-14, leading Salavat Yulaev in goals and assists (and thus obviously in points). That is twice the number of points put up by Igor Grigorenko, currently in second place on the team.
In terms of defending against shots, the two teams are pretty much a wash — Metallurg have given up 27.54 shots per game in these playoffs, Salavat Yulaev 27.21. The difference between the two in goals against is another matter. Metallurg concede 1.64 goals per contest in the postseason, while for Salavat Yulaev the number is… 2.64, and that is not good at all. Even if we discard that 8-0 shellacking as an outlier, the Bashkir team still fishes the puck out of its net 2.23 times ever game. And so we turn our attention to the goaltending, and we discover that Salavat Yulaev’s Niklas Svedberg has struggled mightily. A .907 save percentage is not good enough, and even if we take out the four goals on 20 shots he gave up in the 8-0 loss, it still rises only to .913 — miles from his opposite number in the Metallurg net.
To sum up: these two teams, but for the lucky vagaries of shooting percentage, are fairly close in terms of offense. In terms of team defense, they are nearly indistinguishable. However, Metallurg Magnitogorsk enjoy a massive advantage in goal (assuming, of course, that Koshechkin stays healthy), and this is likely to tell much of the tale of their upcoming series. In addition, we need to wonder a bit about fatigue, as Salavat Yulaev’s hard trail to the final four may start to take a toll. It will be an entertaining series, but Magnitka should win it in about six games.
As in the previous rounds, the West Conference starts first in this one; CSKA and SKA will get things going on Tuesday in Moscow, at 7:30 pm local time. The East Final will begin on Wednesday, in Magnitogorsk, at 7:00 pm local. Here at the blog, we’ll have a full set of news up tomorrow, and then we’ll turn our attention to the doings of the Women’s Hockey League and the upcoming Women’s World Championship. Thank you for reading!