Weekly Russian Hockey News Notes: April 18th, 2016
And so we will play seven in the Gagarin Cup Final! On Tuesday, at 7:30 pm local time, CSKA Moscow will host Metallurg Magnitogorsk in the final game of the 2015-16 KHL season, with the Cup on the line. Read on, as we discuss how the series got to this point, how the Under-18s are doing in far-off North Dakota, and other matters from the past seven days!
When we checked in last week, CSKA had a 2-1 lead over Metallurg in the Final, making Game 4, in Magnitogorsk, a crucial one. And Metallurg were up to the challenge. Goalie Vasily Koshechkin, who had been beaten from centre-ice for a goal in Game 3, made full amends for that error, stopping 30 CSKA shots in Game 4. Metallurg scored only once themselves, through Czech forward Tomáš Filippi, but with Koshechkin in that kind of form, one was all they needed, and the victory evened the series at two games apiece. However, Game 4’s big moment had nothing to do with the scoring or the goaltending. At 4:48 of the second period, the referee’s arm went up, the whistle blew, and, for the first time since January of 2015 — a span of 102 KHL games — Metallurg’s Sergei Mozyakin took a seat in the penalty box (tripping was the call, for the record). It is now probably the most famous minor penalty in the history of the KHL.
Back to Moscow went the series for Game 5, and it was at this point that things got really dramatic. Both Koshechkin and CSKA netminder Ilya Sorokin were in full impermeability, and it was not until early in the third period that Roman Lyubimov gave the home team the lead. As the clock ran down, it appeared that another 1-0 game was on the cards, but Mozyakin had other plans. With six minutes left he charged up the middle, took a pass, and snapped the puck past Sorokin to tie the game. Then, with but two minutes to go in the third, Metallurg’s Viktor Antipin covered the puck in his own crease — penalty shot for CSKA, and glorious chance for a winning goal! Up stepped Lyubimov, but his weak attempt dribbled wide, and to overtime we went. Mozyakin, as things turned out, was not finished. Five minutes into the first extra frame, he found his own rebound and, from the most acute of angles, was able to fire it over the sprawling Sorokin; 2-1 the final score, and Metallurg knew they were going home with a chance to win their second Gagarin Cup in three years.
Mozyakin ties it for Metallurg in Game 5.
But the playoffs can throw up unlikely heroes, and so it was in Game 6 in Magnitogorsk. Journeyman forward Mikhail Yunkov gave CSKA a lead less than five minutes in, and they doubled it early in the second period thanks to Ivan Telegin after ferocious work by Alexander Radulov. Once again, the game entered its late stages with CSKA ahead, and once again Metallurg had an answer. First, with six minutes to play in the third, Chris Lee buried Mozyakin’s centering pass to make the score 2-1. And with only a minute remaining, and Koshechkin on the bench for an extra attacker, Jan Kovář tipped home the tying goal to send the home fans into raptures. Overtime, yet again, but only briefly this time. At 1:40 of extra time Yunkov got free in the slot and one-timed Maxim Mamin’s pass into the net to win it for CSKA and set up Tuesday’s winner-take-all affair. For Yunkov, the two goals were his first points of the playoffs, and he had managed only one goal and one assist in 22 regular season games. He does already have a Gagarin Cup ring in his collection; ironically enough, he won it with Metallurg in 2014.
And so, after six games, we have had five decided by a single goal and three of those in overtime. No matter who wins on Tuesday — and really, who would want to venture a prediction at this point — this has been a classic series in every way imaginable.
This will be the fifth Gagarin Cup Final in the KHL’s eight-year history to go the distance. The league’s inaugural season in 2008-09 ended in a seven-game set, as Ak Bars Kazan defeated Lokomotiv Yaroslavl. The very next season produced another Ak Bars victory in seven games, this time over now-departed HK MVD Balashikha. In 2011-12, Dynamo Moscow got in on the act, coming back from a 3-1 series deficit to defeat Avangard Omsk in the Final. And then the 2013-14 season saw Metallurg triumph in seven over another club that has subsequently left the league, Lev Prague.
Leaving for now the drama of the KHL, the IIHF Under-18 World Championship got underway this week in Grand Forks, North Dakota, with much attention being paid to the Russian entry on account of the odd circumstances behind the team’s selection. To recap briefly: Russia’s “actual” U18 team was pulled from the tournament two weeks ago, out of fears that some players would test positive for meldonium. The Russian Under-17 team, with a few North American-based U18 players thrown in, was chosen to go instead. How would they fare, with little time to get ready and facing older competition?
Things did not look hopeful when Team Russia opened the tournament with an 8-2 loss to the host Americans. It was a third-period collapse that did that damage in that one, as the U.S. led 4-2 after forty minutes before piling on the goals in the final frame. But the young Russians recovered; goalie Daniil Tarasov stopped 21 of 22 shots in his team’s second game, and Pavel Dyomin scored two minutes into overtime to cement a 2-1 victory over Switzerland. It was an important psychological moment, as the Swiss had demolished Russia’s full U18 team 5-0 in the quarterfinals at last year’s Worlds. Having found their stride, Team Russia then scored four goals in the first period of Monday’s game against Latvia en route to a 7-0 victory, with Tarasov recording the 20-save shutout. So, two wins and five points from three group games is where we stand after three games, which I am sure will be entirely acceptable to the team’s coaches and managers.
It has been a real team effort for the Russians; the squad’s scoring lead is a four-way tie at three points, with another five players at two apiece. Andrei Svechnikov, who at barely 16 is the youngest player on the team but most definitely bears watching, got his first goal and point of the tournament against Latvia. However, defenseman Mikhail Sergachyov, ranked as a top-ten prospect for the 2016 NHL draft, has yet to find the scoresheet, which is a bit strange. No matter; Russia faces Sweden on Tuesday to finish up the group stage, and is guaranteed a spot in the quarterfinal round to be played on Thursday.
As an added U18 note: Belarus this week earned promotion to the top division for next year’s tournament. The Belarusans hosted and won the Division IA competition.
Back in Russia, meanwhile, the VHL (the country’s second-tier men’s pro league) is into its final round, with Neftyanik Almetyevsk and Izhstal Izhevsk vying for the Bratina Cup. And it appears that the latter’s storybook run in 2015-16 — Izhstal were the tenth-seeded team coming into the playoffs — may be coming to an end. Neftyanik won the first two games of the series, 4-1 and 4-2, and although Izhstal halved the deficit with a 3-2 victory in Game 3, the Almetyevsk side won Game 4 by the same score. So Neftyanik now lead the series three games to one, and can acquire their first title since 2000 with a win at home on Thursday.
In the junior MHL, the Kharlamov Cup Final is also underway, featuring Loko Yaroslavl versus last year’s champions Chaika Nizhny Novgorod. Loko, with home ice advantage, currently lead that best-of-seven series two games to one, with Game 4 to go ahead in Nizhny Novgorod on Tuesday.
And while we have not said much about Russia’s second-tier junior league, MHL-B, in these pages, we should definitely send kudos in the direction of HK Gornyak Uchaly. The club from Bashkortostan won that circuit’s championship, the Cup of Regions, this week with a 3-0 series victory over Rossosh Voronezh.
Development work continued this week on the proposed new KHL farm league, the Hockey Premier League (HPL). Representatives of those KHL and VHL teams interested in participating (rumours suggest that there are at least 12 such KHL clubs) met this week to talk over some of the details. Interestingly, the attendees included representation from an Estonian club, HK Tallinn, that may or may not be associated with the Ilves Tallinn club that has applied to join the KHL. While it sounds like HK Tallinn are looking join the HPL as an independent team, that status may be in place only as long as it takes Ilves to get admitted to the big league. That is a pure guess, however — there are many more unknowns than knowns about the HPL at this point.
Among the unknowns is exactly which KHL teams are looking to ice teams in the new league. Reports have suggested the Sibir Novosibirsk are not interested for this coming season, while Traktor Chelyabinsk are. Metallurg Novokuznetsk had representation at this week’s meeting, which may be a clue as to their intentions. The application deadline is April 30th, and we should know more shortly thereafter.
Rumours of the imminent presence of a Swedish team in the KHL popped up again this week. This time, they came courtesy of Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet, which reported that a brand-new club to be named “Crowns” is being created, and that it already has a coach in 1980s NHL star Bengt-Åke Gustafsson (note: link is in Swedish, as Google Translate would not work on it). Even odder is the rumour, somewhat downplayed in the linked article, that Crowns intend to play home games in a number of different Scandinavian cities, including Stocklholm, Copenhagen, and Oslo. No word from the KHL itself on all this just yet.
The situation with the Swedish KHL expansion rumours is an odd one. The Svenska Ishockeyförbundet — the Swedish Ice Hockey Association — has been blunt and to-the-point in its statements that it has no interest whatsoever in there being a team from the country in the KHL. Nonetheless, the rumours continue to appear, with a frequency indicating that efforts in just that direction continue despite the official pronouncements. While it would be a great surprise, to me in any case, if a Swedish team appeared in the KHL in 2016-17, it might not be such a shock in subsequent years. Hockey history in other countries tells us that the power of national associations, when it comes to dealing with professional leagues, is not without its limits.
Back to the ice, and matters upon which we can report with some assurance as to the facts. The Russian men’s national team continued preparations for the upcoming World Championship with a pair of Eurochallenge games against Slovakia in Košice this week. The first encounter made it to the 27-minute mark at 0-0 before Team Russia found the range in a big way; Lokomotiv Yaroslavl’s Yegor Averin scored twice and added an assist, and Igor Shestyorkin recorded the shutout in a 6-0 victory. The second match was much closer, as Shestyorkin once again played very well and Russia took the win by 2-1 in a shootout.
Whether or not he becomes a Gagarin Cup winner on Tuesday, it now appears virtually certain that CSKA Moscow defenseman will be a Toronto Maple Leaf next season. That, at least, is the word from his current General Manager; CSKA boss Sergei Fedorov said this week that his club has had an agreement with Zaitsev for some time that this will be his last KHL season at least for now. There is not yet any such definitive word on Zaitsev’s team-mate Alexander Radulov, also rumoured to be heading for North America.
The full free-agent signing season in the KHL begins after April 30th, when the current season’s contracts expire, there have been some acquisitions already of free agents from other leagues. Jokerit Helsinki have revamped their goaltending, signing 29-year-old American Ryan Zapolski to a two-year deal. Zapolski posted a .927 save percentage and a goals-against average below two in 55 games with Lukko of the Finnish League this past season. He will replace Henrik Karlsson, who will not be returning to the club.
Clubs are also free to re-sign players whose contracts are expiring, and there has been a real flurry of such activity in the last few days. Some highlights:
- Goalie Konstantin Barulin will be back with HK Sochi next season. Barulin played 53 games for Sochi in 2015-16, posting a .926 save percentage.
- Finnish defenceman Sami Lepistö has re-signed with Salavat Yulaev Ufa for one year, after setting career highs in goals (11) and points (30) with the Bashkir club this season.
- Also re-signing in Ufa is goalie Niklas Svedberg (same link). The former Boston Bruins prospect had a shaky start to his time with Salavat Yulaev, but improved over the course of the season. He finished with a .916 save percentage in 53 games.
- Slovan Bratislava have locked up a goalie as well; Canadian Barry Brust has re-signed for the next two seasons. Brust was a big part of the Slovan’s successful playoff quest in 2015-16, posting a .930 save percentage over 37 games
- Croatian KHL side Medveščak Zagreb re-signed seven players this week, among them forward Gilbert Brulé. The former sixth-overall NHL draft pick tied for second on the team last season with 13 goals.
Jokerit Helsinki have announced that a core of 17 players from last season will return for 2016-17. Among them are the club’s leading goal-scorer in this past season, Denmark’s Peter Regin (60gp, 17-31-48) and two of their top three scoring defencemen in Topi Jaakola (57 gp, 10-15-25) and Ville Lajunen (58 gp, 9-19-28). Not on the list, at least not so far, is 2015-16’s team points leader among blueliners, Philip Larsen (52 gp, 11-25-36).
To the usual weekly update on our players of particular interest, two of whom will be on the ice in Moscow for that Game 7 on Tuesday:
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 — 19 gp, 4-9-13, +8, 10 PiM, 22:27 TOI/gm. We may have jinxed the lad — after scoring six points in the first three games of the series, Zaitsev has posted goose eggs in the next three. However, his mark on this Final has been made, and Toronto Maple Leafs fans (probably) have something to look forward to next season.
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.
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 — 22 gp, 11-14-25, +12, 2 PiM, 21:23 TOI/gm. An amazing player — what else is there to say at this point? He has either scored or assisted on each of his team’s four goals over the last two games.
We’ll be back on Tuesday to wrap up the Gagarin Cup Final when it’s all done — thank you for reading!