Gagarin Cup Final Preview
After a week of waiting, we have at last arrived at the opening of this year’s Gagarin Cup Final, with CSKA Moscow set to take Metallurg Magnitogorsk! Below the jump, we will take a look at the two teams heading into the series, but before that happens, we need to pause briefly to consider some breaking news, and not of the good sort, in Russian hockey today.
Confirmed details are still scant, but it appears that the Russian Under-18 boys’ national team will not attend this year’s U18 World Championship, which begins next week in North Dakota, and will be replaced — players and coaches both — at the tournament by the country’s U17 side. Doping, specifically use of the recently-banned substance Meldonium, is the prime suspect, and indeed it is hard to come up with a more plausible reason for such a last-minute decision to switch rosters. Journalist Igor Eronko tweeted this evening that the U18s had indeed been using Meldonium, but had stopped this past November, two months before the drug was banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency. And that is about all that we know, with any degree of certainty, right now. The Russian Hockey Federation will officially announce on Thursday the roster that will be traveling to the U18 World Championship, and we may find out more then. This is obviously a major situation, and we’ll have a longer discussion of it here this weekend, by which time things will hopefully be clearer.
Back to the more pleasant business at hand. Read on, as we take a close look at CSKA and Metallurg!
Gagarin Cup Final
CSKA Moscow (#1 in the West Conference) vs. Metallurg Magnitogorsk (#2 in the East)
CSKA Moscow, the old Red Army team, have a record 32 national championships on their resume, but they have not won one since 1989, when Viktor Tikhonov still prowled the bench calling upon the likes of Larionov and Fetisov. However, this season has brough them as close as they have been since those days — CSKA won the KHL regular season championship, and have been simply unstoppable in these playoffs. Coach Dmitry Kvartalnov’s boys won their opening series in four straight against Slovan, surprisingly dropped a game before finishing off Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod in five, and then exacted some revenge for 2014-15 by sweeping defending champions SKA St. Petersburg away in four straight. If you are keeping track, that means a playoff record of 12-1 so far. As for Metallurg, there’s has been a slightly bumpier road for them. Ilya Vorobyov’s Magnitogorsk side, champions in 2014 and seeded second in the East behind Avangard Omsk this time, took six games to deal with a pesky Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg, got by Sibir Novosibirsk in five (not without some controversy), and then triumphed in another five-game set against Salavat Yulaev Ufa in the East Conference Final.
It is hard to get his deep into the playoffs without nice goaltending, so no great surprise should be felt when we discover that the starting netminders for CSKA and Metallurg are first and second in the KHL in save percentage this post-season. Ilya Sorokin, the young up-and-comer for the Moscow side, leads the way with a mark of .952 in 13 games, ever-so-slightly ahead of Metallurg’s gigantic Vasily Koshechkin at .951 in 12 games. Both goalies have been excellent, and it would clearly be very difficult to pick between them at this point. Koshechkin, the man of the hour when Metallurg won the Gagarin Cup in 2014, may have a slight edge when it comes to playoff experience, but really, neither team has much to worry about between the pipes.
However, we do see a difference when we look at Goals Against Average. Here, Sorokin once again leads with the way, allowing only 1.16 goals per game in the playoffs. Koshechkin is second in the league, but a long way off at 1.45. So it would seem that Metallurg give up considerably more shots than CSKA, and indeed the numbers bear that out. Metallurg goalies have been called upon an average of 30 time per game in these playoffs, while CSKA have faced only 25 shots against per contest, and that is a significant difference. Small sample size and all that, but it’s worth noting.
CSKA’s defense is anchored by Nikita Zaitsev, probably bound for North America in the summer but for now one of the very best two-way defenders you’ll find in the KHL. Denis Denisov has also done quietly effective work in these playoffs. While Bogdan Kiselevich, injured in Round 1, is a significant absence, the return of Igor Ozhiganov partway through Round 2 was a welcome one. As for Metallurg, theirs is a high-scoring defence corps, led by Chris Lee, who is second in KHL post-season points by defencemen with nine in 16 games. However, do not lose track of Yevgeny Biryukov in this Final — only three points in 16 games so far, but he leads Metallurg with a +/- of +14, a full six points ahead of his next best team-mate by that statistic.
And that brings us to the forwards, which is where the fun really begins, because this series will pit probably the two best players in the brief history of the KHL against each other. Metallurg’s Sergei Mozyakin and CSKA’s Alexander Radulov are first and second, respectively, in all-time league scoring, and between them have won all eight of the KHL’s season points titles. And they are a true contrast in styles; Mozyakin is all guile and sneakiness, and there may not be a player anywhere in the hockey world more skilled at causing opposing defencemen to lose track of him when they shouldn’t (he also possesses a truly dangerous shot). Radulov, meanwhile, combines skill with tremendous strength, and plays with a level of emotion that occasionally goes over the top and gets him into trouble. Both men are enthralling to watch when on their games. In these playoffs, Mozyakin leads the way league-wide with 18 points in 16 games, while Radulov, who had a quiet series against SKA (one goal and one assist), is in eighth with 11 points in 13 matches. Like his team-mate Zaitsev, Radulov is rumoured to be heading for the NHL next season, so these may be the last games he plays for CSKA.
But it would be a mistake to concentrate entirely on Mozyakin and Radulov in this coming final, as both forward groups have other players worthy of mention. For Metallurg, Mozyakin’s traditional linemates, Jan Kovář and Danis Zaripov, are true scoring threats in their own right; Kovář is second in playoff points with 17. And Alexander Syomin (or Semin), a mid-season arrival from the NHL, has had a very good time of it in the post-season, with a scoring line of 7-7-14 in 16 games. For CSKA, Stéphane Da Costa has five goals in these playoffs and Geoff Platt six, with the latter’s scoring coming in only nine games. The fly in that particular ointment is that Platt will miss the first three games of the Final, having been suspended for a kicking incident during the series against SKA.
So, in the final analysis, the two goalies are likely just about even, while CSKA unquestionably has the defensive edge in this series. As for scoring potential, in that I think we must give the nod to Mozyakin and Metallurg, and they will have the advantage in recent Gagarin Cup Final experience as well. It should make for entertaining viewing, and I would not want to put money down on who will win. In any case, the answer to that particular question will begin to reveal itself on Thursday, in Moscow, and 7:30 pm local time!