Weekly Russian Hockey News Notes: April 11th, 2016
Time for some more news notes! This week, we look at the first three games of a highly entertaining Gagarin Cup Final, check in with various international hockey goings-on, and discuss the final weekend of the NHL regular season. There’s more, too, so read on!
So here we are three games into the Gagarin Cup Final, and it must be said that the series has lived up to expectations so far! Game 1 between CSKA Moscow and Metallurg Magnitogorsk began brightly for the visitors, when Sergei Mozyakin put Metallurg ahead only three minutes in. But CSKA, who came in with a playoff record of 12-1, found their skating legs, tallying three times in the second period to take a 3-1 lead. Then, in the final frame, Nikita Zaitsev’s wonder-goal (see video above) made it 4-1 and chased Vasily Koshechkin from the Metallurg goal. CSKA welcomed his replacement, Ilya Samsonov, with a fifth to make the final score 5-1 and give Red Army the early lead in the series.
Zaitsev went right back to work in Game 2, giving CSKA a 1-0 advantage in the first period, before Mozyakin set up line-mate Danis Zaripov to tie the game early in the second. In the final frame, Alexei Bereglazov put the boys from Magnitogorsk ahead. Lady Luck took a hand on that occasion; Bereglazov’s shot was purely speculative, but CSKA’s Grigory Panin contrived to glove the puck past Ilya Sorokin and into his own net. They all count however, and after Koshechkin, redeeming himself for his Game 1 struggles, had withstood a ferocious CSKA attack in the last minutes of the game, the 2-1 score held up and the series was tied.
Game 3, back in Magnitogorsk on Monday, was the best of lot so far. It was scoreless until well past the halfway mark, but Zaripov struck late in the second period to put Metallurg up 1-0 with 20 minutes to play. Nothing daunted, CSKA tied it up with ten minutes to go, on a shot from centre by French forward Stéphane Da Costa, and shortly thereafter Zaitsev potted his third in three games to make it 2-1. As the period wound down, it looked like CSKA would hang on, but with a mere 17 ticks of the clock remaining, Jan Kovář found a goal to salvage things for the home team. Alexander Semin deserves much of the credit for it, as he took a battering along the boards to protect the puck, and his pass to Kovář was splendid. Off to overtime we went, with the score 2-2.
Semin’s and Kovář’s good work, however, would be for naught; with only a couple of minutes left in the first extra frame, Da Costa struck again, on the powerplay — CSKA the victors by a score of 3-2, and they now lead the series 2-1. Game 4 goes Wednesday in Magnitogorsk, and if the series so far is any guide, there is much more drama to come.
The final pairings are set in both the VHL and the MHL. The VHL’s Bratina Cup Final will feature Tatar side Neftyanik Almetyevsk against Izhstal Izhevsk from the Ural region. Izhstal in particular are having a noteworthy playoff run this season; seeded tenth coming into the playoffs, they defeated regular season champions THK Tver in six games in the semifinal round (Neftyanik, for the record, were the fourth seed when the playoffs began). The Bratina Cup Final begins on Wednesday, in Almetyevsk.
In the junior MHL, meanwhile, it will be Loko Yaroslavl, top seed in the West Conference, up against defending champions Chaika Nizhny Novgorod, seeded fourth in the East, in the Final of the Kharlamov Cup. That series will get underway on Thursday, in Yaroslavl.
Turning our eyes to the international hockey scene: The Russian national team is busy preparing for the IIHF Men’s World Championship, beginning in less than a month in Moscow and St. Petersburg. This past week saw Russia play a couple of exhibition games against Norway at the newly-renovated Yubileiny Sports Complex in St. Petersburg, as part of the Euro Challenge Series. The Russian team took both games, although Norway made them work for their victories. The first encounter did not end until overtime, when Sibir Novosibirsk’s Vitaly Menshikov scored to seal a 2-1 final result. The second game between the two was a bit easier; Team Russia enjoyed a three-goal second period en route to a 4-1 victory.
Many of the players who suited up against Norway will not be on the final roster for the World Championship. With the NHL regular season wrapping up this past weekend, a number of Russian players from non-playoff teams are now available, and it was reported today that eight of them are on their way to the national team. They are: goalies Sergei Bobrovsky (Columbus Blue Jackets) and Semyon Varlamov (Colorado Avalanche), rearguard Alexei Yemelin (Montreal Canadiens), and forwards Nail Yakupov (Edmonton Oilers), Sergei Plotnikov and Viktor Tikhonov (both from the Arizona Coyotes), Sergei Kalinin (New Jersey Devils), and Alexander Burmistrov (Winnipeg Jets). There will doubtless be more such additions as the days go by.
The Russian women’s national team returned from the World Championship this past week, bronze medals in hand and missions (a podium spot, Olympic qualification) very much accomplished. They were welcomed at the airport in Moscow by a group including famous Soviet-era coach Vladimir Yurzinov, Sr., and the team’s own bench boss Mikhail Chekanov pronounced himself quite satisfied with the tournament.
And, if you wish to see some very happy hockey players, the Russian Hockey Federation’s video of the anthem and celebrations following the bronze medal game at the Women’s Worlds fits the bill:
Russia’s team at the Under-18 World Championship in the United States (see yesterday’s post here for more on them), played an exhibition match on Monday against Team Slovakia — an interesting first test for this young Russian side (remember, this is basically the Under-17 team playing an Under-18 tournament). They did ok, too, although Slovakia emerged victorious, 4-3 via a shootout. For Team Russia, Yaroslav Alexeyev of the Dynamo Moscow youth system scored twice, with German Poddubny adding the third. Both Russian goalies — Daniil Tarasov and Maxim Zhukov — saw action in the game, so the final decision about who will be number one when the tournament begins may not have been made just yet. Russia’s first actual tournament game is against the United States this coming Thursday.
And, to complete the international round-up, the Russian juniors (i.e., the Under-20 side) were taking part in a four-nation tournament in the Czech Republic this past week. In addition to Russia and the hosts, Finland and Slovakia were present, but it was the young Russians who came out on top. After dropping their first game, 4-3 in a shootout, to the Czechs, the Russian U20s exacted some revenge for the 2016 World Junior Championship by downing Finland 4-2 (you may recall that Finland defeated Russia in overtime for the gold medal at the World Juniors this past January). The third and final game, against Slovakia, went to Russia by a 6-2 score. Kirill Kaprizov, the Minnesota Wild prospect who at only 18 years old played a full KHL season in 2015-16 for Metallurg Novokuznetsk, scored twice and added at least three assists in the tournament (I was unable to find full stats for the win over Slovakia).
Pavel Datsyuk of the Detroit Red Wings, rumoured last week to be leaving the NHL for Russia at season’s end, came close to confirming those stories this weekend when he said “I think I am done” with the NHL at the end of this season. Family reasons are behind the decision; Datsyuk has a teenage daughter who lives in Russia, and he would like to be able to spend more time with her.
However, on Monday Datsyuk sounded a little less certain about the move, telling the media that “It’s not a final decision, 100 percent.” Part of the problem is that if Datsyuk retires now, the Red Wings will still be on the hook for his 7.5 million dollar salary cap hit next season, due to the age at which he signed his current three-year deal. Datsyuk expressed some unwillingness to leave the club with that hanging over it, and said that he wished he had opted for a shorter deal.
If Datsyuk does return to Russia, and if he decides to continue his playing career in the KHL (both are “ifs”), he will probably have his pick of several teams for whom to play. Avtomobilist in Yekaterinburg — Datsyuk’s hometown and the place where his daughter lives — is one possibility, although the team’s small budget may prevent such a move. SKA St. Petersburg, on the other hand, can afford him, and will most certainly be very interested in doing so. Other possibilities? CSKA Moscow, where Datsyuk played during the most recent lockout and where his former Red Wings team-mate Sergei Fedorov is General Manager, is one such, especially if they lose Alexander Radulov to North America this off-season. And we might perhaps even include Ak Bars Kazan, another club for whom Datsyuk played a couple of seasons before embarking on his NHL career.
Alexander Ovechkin added to his “all-time goalscorer” credentials during the final weekend of NHL regular-season play; “Ovi” came in to the Washington Capitals’ last two games on 47 goals for the year, and looked as though the league might go without a 50-goal scorer in 2015-16. No problem — in Game 81, against the St. Louis Blues, Ovechkin had reached 49 goals by the time the game was seven minutes old, and number 50 (and the hat-trick) duly arrived halfway through the third period of a 5-1 Capitals victory.
This 50-goal season is Ovechkin’s seventh, and he’s in elite company with that; the only other players to score 50 seven times are Wayne Gretzky and Mike Bossy. In 2015-16, only three other players managed as many as forty goals, including Ovechkin’s fellow-countryman Vladimir Tarasenko of the Blues, who hit 40 on the dot (Jamie Benn and Patrick Kane were the other two 40-goal men this season).
Alexander Gulyavtsev is the new Head Coach at KHL side Severstal Cherepovets. The 42-year-old had a journeyman-ish 22-year playing career as a forward in the Soviet second division, the Russian Superleague, and the KHL. Most of that was spent with his hometown team, Molot-Prikamie Perm (former Molot Perm), but he did play two-and-a-half seasons for Severstal, and finished up in 2011 with two seasons as Captain of Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg. For the past three-and-a-bit seasons, he has been Head Coach of Molot-Prikamie, now in the VHL, and he won that league’s Coach of the Year award in 2013-14. At Severstal, Gulyavtsev takes over from interim Coach Dmitry Yushkevich, who himself was a mid-season replacement for the fired Václav Sýkora. The Cherepovets team finished last in the West Conference in 2015-16, and 27th out of 28 in the KHL as a whole, with only 58 points from 60 games.
SKA St. Petersburg’s season may have ended one playoff round earlier than they wanted it to, but that was in no way the fault of goalie Mikko Koskinen, who posted a .949 save percentage with five shutouts in 15 post-season games. The 27-year-old Finn has been duly rewarded this week, signing a new two-year deal with SKA.
Other noteworthy KHL contract extensions this past week: Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod have re-signed forward Alexander Frolov to a one-year deal. Frolov, who spent eight seasons in the NHL, mostly with Los Angeles, scored 6-13-19 in 47 regular season games for Torpedo in 2015-16, and added another three points in the playoffs. The Nizhny Novgorod club also re-signed forward Dmitry Syomin, who was second on the team with 31 points in 58 regular season games.
There were also some departures from KHL teams this week, as clubs get ready for the free agent signing season that will begin at the start of May. Of note: forward Alexei Krutov, son of Soviet superstar Vladimir Krutov, has left Spartak Moscow for HC Red Ice of the Swiss league. Krutov played only 15 games for Spartak in 2015-16, failing to record a point. Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg have said goodbye to Finnish forward Eero Elo, who becomes a free agent. Elo had a good season in 2015-16, scoring 18 goals and adding 10 assists in 56 games, and he should have no trouble finding work in one of Europe’s top leagues. Another Finnish product, Jani Rita, will not be back with Jokerit Helsinki next season. This is a somewhat poignant one; The 34-year-old played almost 700 games for Jokerit in the Finnish league and the KHL over the years, and was a long-ago first round draft pick of the Edmonton Oilers in the NHL. This past season, however, he managed only eight points in 56 games, and so will be seeking employment elsewhere.
The big house-cleaning, however, was at Ugra Khanty-Mansiysk, which let go eight players this past week. Among them: goalie Georgi Gelashvili, who played in 37 games for Ugra in 2015-16, and forward Vitaly Sitnikov, whose 17 points in 45 games ranked him third on the team. The club did re-sign several players as well, including netminder Vladislav Fokin, who shared the 2015-16 duties with Gelashvili and was the more effective of the two.
We will finish up with the usual update on our team of players of particular interest. Two are still going in the Gagarin Cup Final, and one of the others had a nice week on the international scene!
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. Well, not quite over. Paigin was in the national team lineup for the games against Norway, and he almost single-handedly saved the first of those contests for Russia; his third-period goal tied things at 1-1 before Menshikov won it in overtime.
D Nikita Zaitsev (CSKA Moscow): Regular Season — 46 gp, 8-18-26, +21, 20 PiM, 21:01 TOI/gm. Playoffs — 16 gp, 4-9-13, +9, 8 PiM, 22:26 TOI/gm. He’s been utterly magnificent against Metallurg, and one of the big stories of the Final so far, with three goals and three assists in three games (and of course, one of those goals was the fine piece of work in the video at the top of this post). An amazing performance.
F Nikolai Prokhorkin (Salavat Yulaev Ufa): Regular Season — 55 gp, 19-17-36, +10, 91 PiM, 17:08 TOI/gm. Playoffs — 19 gp, 2-5-7, -4, 16 PiM, 19:02 TOI/gm. Eliminated from playoffs, season over. He managed one last assist as Salavat Yulaev were eliminated in the Conference Final by Metallurg Magnitogorsk, but sadly we have to file Prokhorkin’s playoff run under “Disappointing” after a very decent regular season.
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 — 19 gp, 9-12-21, +10, 0 PiM, 21:15 TOI/gm. Metallurg may be trailing in the Final, but Mozyakin has certainly done his bit for his team — three points in three games, and he is +4 over that span as well.
That’s it for this week! The news notes will be back next Monday or so, and there will be other things here in the meantime — thank you for reading!