Weekly Russian Hockey News Notes: March 29th, 2016
More news notes! This time, we have an update on the early doings at the Women’s World Championship in Canada, and will also get you caught up on the state of the playoffs in several different leagues. There are other matters up for discussion as well, so read on!
As we discussed in the most recent post here, the IIHF Women’s World Championship for 2016 got underway in Kamloops, British Columbia, on Monday. Team Russia took on Finland in the opener for both teams, and it was a thrilling game. Three times, Finland went ahead by a goal, and three times Russia caught them, with Iya Gavrilova scoring two of those equalizers. However, the fourth Finnish lead proved decisive; this time, the Finns managed to increase it to two goals, and held on for a 5-3 victory.
Russia’s second game, against the host Canadians, saw Gavrilova score her third of the young tournament early on to give her team a surprising 1-0 lead after the first period. However, five Canadian goals in the first five minutes of the second turned the game decisively, and the final was 8-1. The result means that Russia will finish fourth in Group A, and face quarterfinal meeting with the top team (likely Sweden, at this point).
The Russian team will face the United States on Thursday to close out the group stage of the Championship, and it will very difficult to get anything from that game at all. However, all is not lost for this tournament. As noted in the preview and above, Russia is guaranteed a quarterfinal spot whatever happens, and victory in that will secure at least a spot in the bronze medal game, and also ensure qualification for the 2018 Olympics in South Korea.
Back in the KHL, meanwhile, the western half of the Gagarin Cup Final has been set. CSKA Moscow completed a four game sweep of SKA St. Petersburg on Monday, avoiding a repeat of last season’s collapse at the Conference Final stage. For the old Red Army team, this is as close to a championship as they have been since the days when Viktor Tikhonov prowled their bench; their last title came in the 1988-89 season. And CSKA will be well-rested for the Final; the team’s record in these playoffs now stands at 12-1.
Despite coming in the minimum number of games, the victory over defending champions SKA was closer than it might appear; three of CSKA’s wins were secured by a single goal, with two of those — the last two — requiring overtime. Game 3 of the series set a KHL record for longest 1-0 game; it was well into the third overtime, with nearly 112 minutes of play in the books, before Geoff Platt notched the only goal (Game 4’s overtime, by contrast, was but a minute old when Sergei Andronov ended it). Bizarrely, Platt was subsequently suspended by the league’s Disciplinary Committee, which determined that earlier in the game he had deliberately kicked out at SKA’s Vadim Shipachyov after the two got tangled up at centre ice. Platt was given a four-game ban, and will have three of those still to serve when the Final begins.
That aside, we cannot say enough about the play of CSKA goalie Ilya Sorokin in the course of this series. I had worried, slightly, that the grind of his first KHL season as a full-time starter was taking its toll after the 20-year-old’s numbers dropped a bit in the second round against Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod. False alarm, and then some! Sorokin was beaten only three times, total, in the series against SKA, and recorded a superb save percentage of .979. Not only is he not fading, he has one hand on the playoff MVP trophy.
Nothing is settled just yet, but it appears likely that CSKA’s opponents in the next round will be Metallurg Magnitogorsk, currently enjoying a 3-1 series lead over Salavat Yulaev Ufa in the East Conference Final. Of note here has been the play of Mr. Sergei Mozyakin, which should not come as a huge surprise to anyone. Mozyakin’s scoring streak now stands at 12 games, during which time he has scored eight goals and added ten assists. He has also taken over first place in the KHL playoff points race. Sergei Mozyakin turns 35 years old on Wednesday.
Metallurg will have a chance to close out the series when Game 5 takes place in Magnitogorsk on Thursday.
As for SKA, the now-dethroned 2014-15 champions face a question or two as they head into the off-season. First among those, of course, is: whither Ilya Kovalchuk? The former Captain of the side got into only four playoff games, recording no points and going -3, and at no time did Coach Sergei Zubov call upon him to try to rescue the series against CSKA. In short, it looks fairly certain (though not yet 100% guaranteed) that Kovalchuk has played his last for SKA. Persistent rumours have him heading to Red Star Kunlun Beijing, the KHL’s new Chinese team, and Spartak Moscow, where “Kovi” began his professional career in the late 1990s, are also said to have their hat in the ring if the finances can be made to work out. So far, neither of these rumours are supported by anything concrete, and the latter furthermore has been denied by Spartak, so we shall see — miles to go in this story yet.
Other questions for the SKA brass include whether to bring back Zubov as Head Coach, or go with a bigger name. Zubov certainly deserves some credit at least for turning around a dreadful start to the season in St. Petersburg, but if it is true that Oleg Znarok is available for the job, SKA may find it hard to resist. And who else on the playing staff, apart from Kovalchuk, might be heading out the door? There have been rumours this week that the Montreal Canadiens have been inquiring about forward Yevgeny Dadonov, and there was some similar talk about Vadim Shipachyov possibly also heading to North America. As with the Kovalchuk speculation, SKA have denied that either one is leaving.
Some KHL expansion talk in the last week — we know now that the Chinese entry, Red Star Kunlun from Beijing, are all but assured of being present for 2016-17. League President Dmitry Chernyshenko also indicated this week that there had been negotiations with teams or interested groups in Sweden, Italy, and Germany. However, based on what Chernyshenko said, these are not considered prospective league members for next season, but for further down the road.
Once the Gagarin Cup playoffs are over, we will have time to take a longer look at the expansion possibilities for the league (and we may have some more concrete information by that time, too).
The KHL has announced, speaking of 2016-17, that the regular season will begin on August 22nd, and run through late February. The three breaks in the schedule to allow the Russian national team to play in the Euro Hockey Tour will stay in place. However, the KHL will not take time off to accomodate the NHL-organized World Cup of Hockey, which will take place in Toronto in September.
Back to the ice! In the VHL, Russia’s second-highest professional league, the Bratina Cup Semifinal round is underway. Here is how things stand so far (seedings in parentheses):
- (1) THK Tver tied 1-1 with (10) Izhstal Izhevsk
- (4) Neftyanik Almetyevsk lead 1-0 over (8) Saryarka Karaganda
Surprising to see a tenth-seed still around, but Izhstal have belied their (relatively) lowly regular-season position by dispensing with the seven-seed, SKA-Neva St. Petersburg, in the first round and then pulling off a major upset over number two HK Ryazan in the second.
In the junior MHL, the final four in the Kharlamov Cup playoffs are also set. Here are the match-ups (note that the MHL does not do intra-conference play for its Semifinal round):
- (1 – West) Loko Yaroslavl vs. (8 – East) Sibirskie Snaipery Novosibirsk
- (3 – West) Dynamo St. Petersburg vs. (4 – East) Chaika Nizhny Novgorod
Siberskie Snaipery, the junior team of Sibir Novosibirsk, have had a remarkable run through the playoffs. Despite being the lowest-ranked team to qualify for the playoffs from the East, they have eliminated the conference’s top two regular-season teams, Omskie Yastreby Omsk and Stalnye Lisy Magnitogorsk, and amazingly find themselves among the last teams standing.
The Semifinals begin on April 2nd.
We mentioned a couple of weeks ago that HK Sakhalin, from the far-eastern island of the same name, had advanced to the Asia League Final against South Korean powerhouse Anyang Halla. The best-of-five Final opened last week, with the first three contests to be played in Anyang. Game 1 went to the home side, and a 6-1 scoreline suggested that it could be a quick series.
However, credit to the team from Sakhalin — they rallied to win Game 2 in overtime, 3-2, and then took the series lead with a 4-0 victory in Game 3. HK Sakhalin will now have two cracks at winning their first title, on home ice in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, with the first of those opportunities coming on April 2nd.
HK Sakhalin’s hero of the Final so far, with three goals including the overtime winner in Game 2, has been veteran forward Timofei Shishkanov, who enjoyed a journeyman career with several KHL teams through the league’s first seven seasons (and much earlier, he was a team-mate of young Kovalchuk at Spartak). Shishkanov’s name may also be familiar to North American fans, as he spent a few years in the AHL and even had NHL cups of coffee with Nashville and St. Louis.
Some stray KHL news from this past week! Vityaz Moscow Oblast have announced that Valery Belov will be their Head Coach heading into the 2016-17 season. The 49-year-old Belov played for Vityaz, and coached them, back the Superleague days, but has spent the past decade on the staff at Ak Bars Kazan. When Zinetula Bilyaletdinov took over the Russian national team, Belov became Head Coach in Kazan; he stayed on as an assistant when Bilyaletdinov after the Sochi Olympics.
Touching briefly on the NHL — Nail Yakupov, the first overall draft pick in 2012, revealed in an interview this week that he had been seeking a trade from the Edmonton Oilers prior to this year’s deadline (subsequent comments have raised some doubts over whether it was Yakupov or his agent, Igor Larionov, who was the driving force behind this). Yakupov, an engaging personality with a propensity for feeding the homeless, became a fan favourite in Edmonton, but after a very nice rookie season he struggled to find the scoring form that had made him a top pick. His ice-time and place in the forward roster suffered as a result (not to mention provoking lengthy debates over whose fault it all was), and even before the interview there had been talk of him needing a change of scenery. It now appears likely that Yakupov will move on this summer at some point, though as with Kovalchuk at SKA this is an ironclad certainty just yet. There will doubtless be an NHL team, or more than one, interested in his services, should Yakupov leave the Oilers the outfit that acquires him will get a hard-working, profoundly decent young man, whose talent — if it can be unlocked again — may yet make him an NHL star.
Also moving on from their NHL organizations, according to reports, are a couple of Russian goalies. Anton Khudobin, who has seen time with Boston, Carolina, and most recently Anaheim, has announced through his agent that he will be moving the KHL in the off-season. Khudobin played only eight NHL games for the Ducks this season, spending most of his time in the AHL with the San Diego Gulls.
A similar announcement was forthcoming from Andrei Makarov, a young goalie in the Buffalo Sabres system. Makarov played one NHL game for Buffalo last season, serving in 2015-16 as a backup goalie with the AHL’s Rochester Americans. Spartak Moscow currently hold his KHL rights, although his agent indicates that they are looking into other possibilities in the league as well.
Time to finish up with the regular update on our KHL players of particular interest this season. We have three still active in the playoffs, and are guaranteed one on each of the Final teams, which is good fun!
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. Eliminated from playoffs, season over.
D Nikita Zaitsev (CSKA Moscow): Regular Season — 46 gp, 8-18-26, +21, 20 PiM, 21:01 TOI/gm. Playoffs — 13 gp, 1-6-7, +9, 8 PiM, 22:30 TOI/gm. Zaitsev recorded a productive three assists in three games this week, including a helper on the overtime goal that eliminated SKA.
F Nikolai Prokhorkin (Salavat Yulaev Ufa): Regular Season — 55 gp, 19-17-36, +10, 91 PiM, 17:08 TOI/gm. Playoffs — 18 gp, 2-4-6, -5, 16 PiM, 18:27 TOI/gm. A disappointing run in these playoffs for Prokhorkin, after a very decent regular season. To make matters worse, he was in the penalty box for Metallurg’s winner against Salavat Yulaev in Game 4 of that series.
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 — 15 gp, 8-10-18, +6, 0 PiM, 20:24 TOI/gm. We discussed his wonderful playoff run above, but I wanted to add that Mozyakin, through 72 regular season and playoff games in 2015-16, has not yet taken even a single penalty. Amazing.
And that’s all for this week’s notes! Thank you for reading, and please do check back over the course of the week — there will be a post or two here before we news note again next Monday or Tuesday!