Off to the Races
Crunch time! The 2016-17 KHL season is nearing its end, and fans are scouring the standings and schedules, performing the complex arithmetic of “points available versus points needed.” Some will fine the answers to their liking, others less so. Read on, as we attempt to determine which teams’ fans will be happy as February looms, and the number of games remaining dwindles to but a handful for each team.
A couple of quick reminders before we begin: the KHL awards points on a 3-2-1-0 basis (three for a victory in regulation time, two for an overtime or shootout one, one for a loss in extras, and nothing for a regulation defeat). The KHL regular season is 60 games long, and the full standings can be seen here. With that out of the way, onward.
Metallurg Magnitogorsk, Avangard Omsk Oblast, and Ak Bars Kazan have all booked their post-season tickets, and Metallurg are on the verge of clinching top seed in the East Conference. Traktor Chelyabinsk should be ok as well; despite winning only twice in their last ten, they banked enough points earlier in the season to be fairly confident of seeing the playoffs (whether they can hang on to fourth place in the conference, and thus home-ice advantage in the first round, may be another matter). At the other end of things, Lada Tolyatti, Ugra Khanty-Mansiysk, and poor old Metallurg Novokuznetsk have been mathematically eliminated, while Amur Khabarovsk are clinging on by their fingertips and have only a theoretical chance of playing into March.
That means that, realistically, four spots remain available in the East, with seven teams to argue over them. Salavat Yulaev appear at first glance to be in a good spot atop the group of prospective playoff sides, but there may be some storm clouds on the horizon. The Ufa side, with top goalscorer Teemu Hartikainen (46 gp, 19-17-36) out injured long-term, has lost seven in a row (four of them in overtime or the shootout, mind you), and got further dire news today: Linus Omark, leading the team in points with a line of 55 gp, 14-42-56, has suffered a broken leg and will miss four to six weeks. What effect his absence will have on Kirill Kaprizov, red hot at 8 gp, 5-7-12 since his return from dominating the World Juniors, remains to be seen. And Salavat Yulaev have only four games left with which to acquire points. They do have a nine-point cushion on ninth place, and should be able to make the playoffs despite the problems, but it may be a tighter squeeze than it should be.
As for Barys Astana and Kunlun Red Star Beijing, they too enjoy a cushion over Sibir in ninth, and they have the luxury of a couple more games to play than Salavat Yulaev. “Steady as she goes” should be the motto here, and both clubs have an excellent chance at the post-season. Things may be a bit more difficult for Admiral Vladivostok however. Their six remaining games are all on the road, with the last four far off across the continent against West Conference opposition.
And make no mistake: despite the five point gap that separates them from eighth place, Sibir Novosibirsk Oblast have a good chance for a late run. After a season ravaged by injury, Sibir are now at least relatively healthy beyond the long-term absence of starting goalie Alexander Salák, and have won three games in a row. Furthermore, the December acquisition of Yegor Milovzorov from Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk has proved a shrewd one; the veteran forward has scored 2-8-10 in 12 games since coming over. Finally, Sibir’s schedule holds some promise. With three home and three road games remaining, they do not face a team currently higher in the standings than Barys the rest of the way, and their next two matches are at home against Kunlun Red Star and Admiral. Those are real six-pointers, and represent a tremendous opportunity to move up (Sibir subsequently face Barys on the road — another massive game).
Sibir at their best; more of this will be a welcome sight to their fans!
As for Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg and Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk, it is Avtomobilist who have the best chance to take eighth place, as their six remaining games are all at home. Neftekhimik, who deserve all sorts of credit for making something of a season that appeared to be imploding back in October, have only five games left, three on the road, and their brave charge is likely to come up a bit short this time. Neither Avtomobilist nor Neftekhimik are as strong as Sibir, however, and the climb to the playoffs will be steeply uphill for both of them.
The battle for West Conference top seed and indeed the KHL’s regular season championship will be fought down the stretch between SKA St. Petersburg and CSKA Moscow; the former currently lead by two points, with both having five games left (none against each other, unfortunately). Both teams obviously clinched playoff berths long ago, and will for sure be joined by Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod, Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, and Dynamo Moscow. Dinamo Minsk can feel fairly confident, too; they need but six more points to be certain of the post-season regardless of results elsewhere, and have seven games in which to find them. The bottom of the table sees Dinamo Riga and Spartak Moscow already eliminated, with Severstal Cherepovets and Medveščak Zagreb needing a truly improbable series of events to go their way.
So, barring the miraculous, we are looking at two remaining playoff spots up for grabs, and four teams trying to do the grabbing. Vityaz Moscow Oblast, four points clear at the top of that group with six games left, have been one of the KHL’s big stories of 2016-17. The Podolsk team, with its infamous days of goonery and other assorted awfulness now firmly and most definitely behind it, has won six games in a row in the quest for a first-ever KHL-era playoff appearance. Wily veterans Maxim Afinogenov (54 gp, 19-27-46) and Alexei Kopeikin (54 gp, 19-26-45) have led the way, although there has been no shortage of other significant contributors as well. And Vityaz’ remaining schedule is not a bad one; after a three-game road trip that includes an important visit to Slovan’s rink, they return home for three games all against teams who have made the long trip from the KHL’s Far East. There remains work to be done, and more than a little of it, before that first post-season berth is a reality, but the omens are good for now, and it is hard not to cheer on the Vityaz redemption tour.
Jokerit Helsinki, too, have been a big story this season, although not at all in the way they would have liked. The Finnish club is typically among the best of the West, but have been scrapping for their playoff lives for most of 2016-17. Recent form is not encouraging; Jokerit are 2-8 in their last ten, and one of those victories saw them blow a two-goal lead in the last ten minutes at home against lowly Ugra before a very late Pekka Jormakka strike spared their blushes. The team has certainly had its bright moments (their other victory in the last ten came on the road in St. Petersburg against SKA, and was the second time in January that they had beaten the league leaders), but there can be no doubt that something is wrong, and GM Jari Kurri has some work to do in the off-season whether Jokerit make the playoffs or not. For now, Jokerit travel for three games, then return home for their last two, with all five matches against East Conference opponents. The battle is not lost — far from it — but which Jokerit team will we see down the stretch?
Looking for a way in are HK Sochi and Slovan Bratislava. The Black Sea coastal outfit trail Jokerit by only two points and have a game in hand, but it will not be an easy road. Sochi are a decent team that suffered a terrible bit of injury luck when forward André Petersson, then running at a point per game, went down hurt in early October. He came back in early December, but has yet to rediscover his scoring touch (16 gp, 2-5-7 since his return). And the schedule is a formidable one, containing but one remaining home game out of six, and also involving visits to both SKA St. Petersburg and CSKA Moscow.
As for Slovan, while further back and lacking the game in hand, they can at least look forward to four out five games at home, and two against already-eliminated Medveščak. The bad news? Three of those home games will be played in the next four days, an unusually compressed bit of scheduling for the KHL, and the last of that gruelling string is a key meeting with Vityaz. A stiff test, in other words, for coach Miloš Říha’s side, who have done well to get back in range after dismal start to the season.
So, exciting times in both conferences as we head down the 2016-17 regular season home stretch! Despite the small number of games remaining, we are still about three calendar weeks from the end of the regular season. Why? The KHL has no games between February 8th and 12th due to international hockey commitments. One suspects that for many fans the mantra of those days will be “please nobody get hurt!”