This past July, I penned (keyboarded?) the following words in my 2016-17 preview of Vityaz Moscow Oblast:
“The problem with Vityaz is that, while the team’s sordid history of goons and general craziness is a thing of the past, competitiveness and playoff appearances are not yet things of the present.”
Well, they are things of the present now. On Tuesday, Vityaz secured their first ever KHL playoff berth (they had previously made the Russian Superleague playoffs, just once, in 2006-07), thanks to the combination of their own 5-3 home win over Kunlun Red Star Beijing and HK Sochi’s 4-3 loss to CSKA Moscow. Jokerit Helsinki also dropped a point in beating Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk in overtime, which means that Vityaz now have a lock on seventh place — no more and no less — in the KHL’s West Conference. A playoff date with either SKA St. Petersburg or CSKA awaits.
Read on, for a look at Vityaz’ achievement, a tragic story from the same team this past weekend, and a quick update on the playoff scenarios.
To appreciate fully what Vityaz Moscow Oblast accomplished this season, we do have to take a walk back into that “sordid history of goons and general craziness.” For a time in the early days of the KHL, Vityaz, then playing in the Moscow suburb of Chekhov (they returned to their original home in the neighbouring suburb of Podolsk in 2013), took Conn Smythe’s advice to “beat ’em in the alley” to ridiculous extremes. They scoured North American minor leagues for, it seemed, any enforcer capable of lacing up a pair of skates. It was absolutely nuts; here’s a very brief recap:
The team’s KHL infamy began in the inaugural season of 2008-09, when Chris Simon led the new league in penalty minutes with 236 in 40 games. At least Simon could play (40 gp, 8-19-27); things would get worse thereafter. In 2009-10, Darcy Verot set a still-standing KHL record by amassing 374 PiM in 34 games while contributing just five points to the Vityaz cause. That was the first of three straight seasons in which Vityaz players occupied at least the top two spots on the KHL’s penalty-minute leaderboard. It was also the season in which the January 10th visit of Avangard Omsk to Chekhov lasted just three minutes into the first period, by which time a series of brawls had left only four players — total, from both teams — unejected.
And we have not even mentioned yet the most tragic episode of the “bad old days” at Vityaz. That had occurred in October of 2008, when 19-year-old forward Alexei Cherepanov of Avangard, viewed as one of the most promising Russian prospects in years, collapsed and died of a heart attack while playing against Vityaz in Chekhov. While hardly the fault of HK Vityaz, the arena’s emergency response procedures came in for heavy criticism during the official investigation, and the tragedy only added to the club’s evil reputation.
In terms of the on-ice goonery, something of a new nadir was reached in 2011-12, when the KHL’s top four players in penalty minutes all wore the red and white of Vityaz. They were led by Kip Brennan, whose 240 minutes were achieved in the remarkable span of only 14 games. The club’s focus on the face-punching side of hockey had a predictable effect on the game-winning, point-getting, aspect; any thought of Vityaz making the playoffs, or even coming close, in those early years was laughable. In the KHL’s first four seasons, Vityaz finished: second-last, second-last, third-last, and last. Things were getting ludicrous, and the KHL seriously began to consider expelling the team.
But things have gradually improved since then. In 2012-13, a non-Vityaz player (SKA’s Yevgeny Artyukhin, for the record) topped the penalty-minute table for the first time. A season later, goalie Ivan Lisutin became the first Vityaz player elected to the starting lineup of the West Conference All-Star team. By this point, some very useful players were arriving at the team, starting in 2013-14 with savvy NHL veteran Maxim Afinogenov. The former Buffalo Sabre was followed in 2014-15 by the likes of forwards Roman Horák and Mario Kempe, who would form a solid partnership. That summer also saw the acquisitions of towering defenceman Alexei Semyonov and a young up-and-comer of a forward in Alexei Makeyev. With Lisutin unable to recreate his all-star form, Finnish youngster Harri Säteri was plucked from Worcester of the AHL as his replacement.
The moves paid off, albeit slowly, as Vityaz rose to the unprecedented heights of fifth-last in 2012-13 and matched that the following season. 2014-15 found them ninth from bottom, and now the playoffs were within their reach if not yet their grasp.
A minor road-bump was encountered in 2015-16, when a smart acquisition simply didn’t work out (it happens). Vityaz had signed forward Olli Palola from Finland, but the two-time leading goalscorer in the Liiga managed only 1-4-5 in 27 games for Vityaz (injury told a large part of that story) and was let go at season’s end. And as the team slipped back to fifth-last, a Vityaz player once again took first place in the KHL penalty-minute competition. A bad omen? Not really: Igor Gorovkov’s 122 PiM in 57 games was a far cry from the silliness of the team’s early KHL years, and besides, he was the only Vityaz player in the top 30 penalty-takers in the league.
This past summer, the final pieces of the playoff puzzle were put in place. Undaunted by their failure with Palola, Vityaz went right back to Finland and picked up another young scoring ace in Miro Aaltonen. From the Czech league came play-making defenceman Jakub Jeřábek, while Sibir Novosibirsk captain and veteran two-way forward Alexei Kopeikin also joined the Vityaz ranks. Perhaps most importantly, however, the team hired 50-year-old Valery Belov as head coach. A former Vityaz player himself, Belov, since hanging up his skates in 2003, had amassed a solid resume as an assistant and head coach with Ak Bars Kazan. He has proved to be just about the perfect choice at Vityaz.
Obviously, everything has worked just fine for Vityaz this time around. Three players (Afinogenov, Kopeikin, and Makeyev) have passed the 20-goal mark, while Aaltonen sits at 19 and Horák (16) is not too far behind. Jeřábek has shown his play-making chops with a line of 57 gp, 5-29-34, while Afinogenov, at 37, has scored 20-27-47 in 57 games — the best offensive output he’s enjoyed since he was an Atlanta Thrasher in 2009-10. Finally Kopeikin, who in 14 Russian Superleague and KHL seasons had never previously surpassed the 30-point mark, has a line of 58 gp, 21-30-51.
Disaster threatened when Säteri, with a solid .928 sv% at the time, went down hurt in early January, but back-up Igor Saprykin has stepped in admirably and won nine of 11 games since then (Säteri should be back for the playoffs). The only reason it took Vityaz so long to clinch a playoff berth this season was that the teams around them in the standings have also been racking up the wins lately.
“Another season on the outside, I fear,” was my blithe summation of Vityaz’ hopes this season, accompanied by a description of their roster as “not close to playoff calibre.” Given the long road that Vityaz have walked, I’m happy to have been wrong on that one!
Unfortunately, the news from Vityaz was not all good this week, as a tragic event means that hearts are heavy there despite the first-ever playoff visit. On Saturday, 14-year-old Ilya Solnyshkin, a student at the Vityaz hockey school, died in his team’s dressing-room after a practice. Early reports suggest that a pulmonary edema was the cause, but both the police and the Russian Hockey Federation have launched official investigations (the FHR has also promised support for the young man’s family). The coaches of Solnyshkin’s team, Vityaz-2003, have been suspended from their duties pending the results of those inquiries.
Our sincere condolences to the family and friends of Ilya Solnyshkin.
Turning briefly to the remaining KHL playoff scenarios:
In the West, Tuesday’s results mean that one playoff spot remains open, with two candidates vying for it. Jokerit Helsinki have one game remaining and a five point lead for that final spot ahead of HK Sochi, who themselves have two to play. Given the tie-breaker situation, which favours Sochi, Jokerit need to win their final game, either in regulation time or in extras, to clinch no matter what happens. As for Sochi, they must win their last two games, at least one of them in regulation, and hope that Jokerit stumble. So it looks pretty good for the Finnish team, especially when we consider that Sochi must face SKA in St. Petersburg on Thursday.
As you can see, things are more complicated in the East, where six teams are squabbling over three remaining playoff spots (Barys Astana have now clinched a spot via Tuesday’s overtime win over Sibir Novosibirsk). Thanks to their huge victory over arch-rivals Ak Bars Kazan on Tuesday, Salavat Yulaev Ufa need only a victory (regulation time or otherwise) at home against Lada in their final match to qualify, and possibilities exist even if they lose. At the other end, Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg kept their faint hopes alive with a win on Tuesday, but must record two more victories, both in regulation time, and also have results elsewhere go their way. Things are not much better Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk; they as well need two victories along with helpful scores from several other games.
The real battle will be between Red Star Kunlun, Admiral Vladivostok, and Sibir Novosibirsk. All three lost on Tuesday, although Sibir at least picked up a point by getting to overtime. Kunlun Red Star can clinch with a regulation win in either of their last two games (or by getting three points one way or another). Admiral need four points to be sure at this point; a regulation win plus an overtime/shootout loss will do, as will two overtime/shootout wins. As for Sibir, they must get at least three points from their last two games to have any hope at all, given the tie-breakers, and that assumes a collapse by one or the other of their playoff rivals. For the Siberians, winning out in regulation time would be a very good idea, and even then they would still require help elsewhere. I invite you to check out the previous playoff scenarios post here for the teams’ remaining schedules.
Much will be determined on Thursday, with 12 games on the KHL docket. On Friday, we will check in the aftermath of those, and examine any playoff races remaining before the regular season ends on Saturday. Thank you for reading!