2016-17 KHL Playoffs Round 1 Preview: West
It’s time! The 2016-17 KHL playoffs get underway on Tuesday, as the eight qualifiers from the West Conference take to the ice. Read on, as we run the eye over the four Round 1 series from the West, and try to figure who will still be standing at the end, and why.
(1) CSKA Moscow vs. (8) Jokerit Helsinki
CSKA were reasonably expected to take a step back this season, having said goodbye to Alexander Radulov in the summer, but despite both his departure and the dominant 2016-17 season of SKA St. Petersburg, it is the old Central Red Army team atop the standings for the third straight year. CSKA gave up the fewest goals in the KHL — just 110 in 60 games — and scored the third-most (183). Radulov’s offense was replaced by committee; former New York Islanders prospect Kirill Petrov, in his first full season at CSKA, led the team in goals and points with a line of 53 gp, 20-18-38, while veteran Alexander Popov was plucked from Avangard Omsk to chip in 13-20-33 in 51 games. Valery Nichushkin, who arrived from the Dallas Stars organization early in 2016-17, scored a decent 11-13-24 in 36 games. And while Stéphane Da Costa once again spent much of the season hurt, he scored well when healthy (24 gp, 9-11-20) — and he is healthy now.
But it is at the back that coach Dmitry Kvartalnov’s charges most excel. Goalie Ilya Sorokin came down from the stratospheric heights of his 2015-16 campaign, but his .929 sv% in 39 games was still comfortably above league average, and was matched by back-up Viktor Fasth. Meanwhile, a defence corps featuring the likes of Denis Denisov, Igor Ozhiganov, and Bogdan Kiselevich (not to mention the under-rated Mikhail Naumenkov) has no reason to fear anyone.
A lowly eighth in the West is not where one expects to find Jokerit, but 2016-17 was a season of discontent for the Helsinki team. They conceded the most goals of any West Conference playoff team (165) and scored the second-fewest (149). One problem was goaltending; neither Ryan Zapolski (.909 sv% in 40 games) nor Riku Helenius (.902 in 20) came close to the league average save percentage of about .922. Another was the penalty-killing, second-worst in the KHL at 76.0% — a potential minefield against a CSKA team that ranked sixth in number of powerplay opportunities (CSKA’s powerplay was not particularly strong, mind you, just 14th overall at 19.2%).
That said, there’s a good team at Jokerit, when it decides to play like one. And they are coming in hot, having won four of their last five when they really needed to. Danish forward Peter Regin is a genuinely fine player (57 gp, 18-30-48 to go with a team-leading +15), and Ville Lajunen helped out with 10 goals from defense. Other useful parts include two-way forwards Sakari Salminen and Jesse Joensuu, along with defensive rearguard Artūrs Kulda — to name but a few.
So this series may be a bit closer than your average first-versus-eighth match-up, and CSKA would do well not to underestimate their opponents. However, Kvartalnov is an excellent coach, and he does have the better team here, so there should be little danger of that. CSKA in six games sounds like a reasonable sort of prediction.
(2) SKA St. Petersburg vs. (7) Vityaz Moscow Oblast
They did it! As discussed here last week, Vityaz are in the KHL playoffs for the first time and after many adventures. The remarkable surges in scoring from veteran forwards Alexei Kopeikin (60 gp, 21-30-51, by far a career high in points) and Maxim Afinogenov (58 gp, 20-27-47) are a big part of the story, along with the shrewd off-season acquisition of Miro Aaltonen (59 gp, 19-25-44), and 22 goals from Alexei Makeyev did not hurt the cause either. Speaking of intelligent off-season moves, there was perhaps none bigger than the signing of head coach Valery Belov from Ak Bars Kazan; he must at this point be a serious candidate for KHL coach of the year (for one thing, from the ten games leading up to their clinching of the long-sought playoff spot, Vityaz took 27 of a possible 30 points).
At the back, Vityaz got a wonderful season from yet another pleasant summer arrival in Czechia’s Jakub Jeřábek, who scored 5-29-34 in 59 games, putting him fifth in points among KHL rearguards. The 25-year-old was a major component of the KHL’s third-best powerplay unit (25.6%). And Vityaz got above average goaltending, if only that, from both Harri Säteri (.929 sv% in 42 games) and Igor Saprykin (.924sv% in parts of 22). No doubt about it, Vityaz are full value for the post-season appearance.
And Vityaz’ reward for writing such an excellent story? A first-round date with a team that is their superior in every facet of the game (except penalty-killing, and even that was very close). But for a bizarre hiccup around New Year’s, when they somehow lost four games in a row, SKA would have walked off with the regular season championship; in the end, only the tie-breaker handed it to CSKA. And with all respect for the Moscow team, it would have been deserved. Among SKA’s feats this season was the demolition of the KHL record for team goals in a single campaign (they scored 249 times, besting the previous mark by 34 and putting them nearly a full goal per game ahead of second-best Metallurg Magnitogorsk with 197).
Four St. Petersburg players featured in the top five point-scorers in the league, and it says something about SKA’s remarkable depth at forward that Pavel Datsyuk (44 gp, 12-22-34) was not among them. Ilya Kovalchuk (60 gp, 32-46-78), Vadim Shipachyov (50 gp, 26-50-76), Nikita Gusev (57 gp, 24-47-71), and Yevgeny Dadonov (53 gp, 30-36-66) were the big four, with Kovi’s tale no doubt the most compelling. After the controversy of last season, he played 2016-17 like he was ten years younger, aided in no small part by good health and the arrival of Datsyuk.
Not only did they score the most goals in the KHL, but SKA also conceded the third fewest. A big part of the reason was the breakout campaign of young goalie Igor Shestyorkin, who recorded a .937 sv% in 39 games and broke the team record for longest shutout streak along the way. So it is a little bit strange that coach Oleg Znarok has decided that Mikko Koskinen will get the first start against Vityaz. The veteran Finn had a down season by his standards (a below-league-average .916 sv% in 23 games), although he has been an excellent goalie over his career. An interesting choice, but Znarok knows his business.
As a devoted fan of the underdog, I wish I could predict better for Vityaz in this one. They’re good, good enough to take a game, but the St. Petersburg giants have too many weapons, and I see SKA winning the series in five.
(3) Dynamo Moscow vs. (6) Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod
Would you like a Gagarin Cup dark horse pick? Step forward, Dynamo Moscow, who conceded only 111 goals this season — second-fewest league-wide in that category behind city rivals CSKA. Much credit for that must go to goalie Alexander Yeryomenko, whose .950 sv% in 37 games was second-best in the league. And the 36-year-old has been particularly hot in 2017, giving up only 12 goals in parts of 12 games since the calendar changed and posting a .957 sv% in that span. A multitude of hockey sins can be hidden by good goaltending, and Yeryomenko gives Dynamo that in spades.
And while the scoring of goals is not Dynamo’s prime strength, neither is it a weakness. Their 164 tallies puts them only fourth among the West’s playoff teams, but that was good enough for sixth in the entire league. Dynamo’s scoring is very much a group effort, too; Mārtiņš Karsums led the team with a mere 16 tallies, and only four players managed double-digits, numbers that speak of good scoring depth. Dynamo do have a very good offensive defenceman in Juuso Hietanen (57 gp, 12-18-30), and wily veteran rearguard Ilya Nikulin (47 gp, 7-16-23) can help out at both ends of the ice as well.
One serious worry for Dynamo coming in is injury. Star defencemen Mat Robinson, the team’s plus-minus leader at +19, will miss at least the first few games of Round 1, as will captain Alexei Tereshchenko.
As for Torpedo, they have settled into a nice role as a playoff regular in recent seasons. While never strong enough to really threaten the top squads in the conference, nor are they prone to getting involved in tense battles for a post-season spot. And so it was in 2016-17.
In the duel of the goalies, Torpedo’s well-respected coach Pēteris Skudra will likely send out Ilya Proskuryakov to try to match Yeryomenko. That would have been an automatic choice in early October, when Proskuryakov already had four shutouts and was among the league leaders in save percentage. Regression, however, paid a visit, and the 30-year-old finished the season with a .927 sv% in 50 games — still ok, but well off his torrid early pace. Most worryingly, Proskuryakov has given up six goals on 24 shots over his last two starts, neither of which games he finished. Will Skudra perhaps think some thoughts about backup goalie Mikhail Biryukov (.940 sv% in parts of 13 games)? We shall see.
It is an important question, because Torpedo have very little scoring pop to speak of. The team’s 145 tallies was fewest among playoff teams in the West, and only three Torpedo players reached double-digits in goals (Carter Ashton led the team with 18). Latvian forward Kaspars Daugaviņš is something of an attacking threat; his line of 47 gp, 10-22-32 tied him for the team lead in points with Dmitry Syomin (60 gp, 14-18-32).
Dynamo, based on the play of Yeryomenko and their superior goal-scoring, must be said to have the edge here. While they will probably only go as far as Yeryomenko can take them, that may well be quite a long way, and should at least be as as far as the second round. Dynamo in six it is.
(4) Lokomotiv Yaroslavl vs. (5) Dinamo Minsk
This one… this is a tough series to pick, as befits the fourth-versus-fifth matchup. Lokomotiv, a very solid organization top to bottom, turned in their usual competent performance in 2016-17. Goalie Alexei Murygin did slip back somewhat from an otherworldly 2015-16, but still finished with an above-average sv% of .929 (in this he was much like CSKA’s Sorokin, mentioned above). That performance, coupled with resolute defending from the likes of Rushan Rafikov and Mikhail Pashnin, to name but two, meant that only seven KHL teams gave up fewer goals than Lokomotiv’s 130.
And only six teams in the entire league scored more goals than Lokomotiv (163), and it’s just bad luck that four of those squads are in the West Conference playoffs. Brandon Kozun was acquired this past summer from Jokerit to jump-start the Lokomotiv offense, and it certainly worked; Kozun scored 23-33-56 in 59 games to lead the team in goals and points. A career-best 18 goals from veteran Finn Petri Kontiola provided further aid, and the arrival of Max Talbot, with more than 700 games of NHL experience, should not overlooked either (Talbot scored 15-21-36 in 60 games).
The team from the Belarusan capital, meanwhile, makes a welcome return to the playoffs after missing out last season. Dinamo are coming in red hot, too — winners of nine of their last eleven games, even if four of those victories required extra time. The Minsk side scored 171 goals this season, third-best in the West Conference and fourth-most in the league. Matt Ellison led the way in points (54 gp, 16-22-49), while the 20-goal barrier was breached by both Rob Klinkhammer (21) and Alexander Materukhin (22). Dinamo also got a fantastic playmaking performance from defenceman Marc-André Gragnani. With a line of 56 gp, 4-34-38, he tied for second in the league in points by defensemen.
It is at the back that questions arise for Dinamo Minsk. Ben Scrivens, who arrived this past off-season from North America, shouldered a heavy load for Dinamo in 2016-17, as he appeared in 55 of 60 games. However, his save percentage of .918 was below the league average, if not by much. Dinamo gave up 150 goals, and while that is far from awful (13th-fewest out of 29 KHL teams), it is also 20 more than Lokomotiv gave up.
So, we have two teams that are decent enough at scoring goals, with Dinamo having the slight edge (by eight goals over the season) in that category. However, we also have Lokomotiv conceding 20 fewer goals than Dinamo, and that’s a significant number. Toss in the fact that the Yaroslavl team has home-ice advantage, and despite Dinamo’s recent good form, I think that Lokomotiv in seven is the call here. I would not, however, bet large on that one.
Tomorrow, we preview the four Round 1 series in the East Conference. Thank you for reading!