It was not only the KHL that set sail into 2016-17’s post-season waters this past week; the second-tier VHL has also embarked on its playoff journey. Read on, as we take a quick look at that league’s first round, and at a couple of other playoff-related items as well.
The VHL has an old-school playoff format: no conferences or divisions, and the top 16 make the playoffs in the 26-team league (unfortunately, the VHL finished this season with only 25 teams, after financial difficulties forced Kristall Saratov to suspend operations partway through). The first round is a best-of-seven affair, with #1 playing #16, #2 playing #15, and so on. And here are the 2016-17 pairings, with series standings after two games:
(1) Torpedo Ust-Kamenogorsk 2-0 (16) Izhstal Izhevsk
(2) SKA-Neva St. Petersburg 2-0 (15) HK Ryazan
(3) Saryarka Karaganda 1-1 (14) Zvezda Chekhov
(4) Sputnik Nizhny Tagil 2-0 (13) Yermak Angarsk
(5) Toros Neftekamsk 1-1 (12) Dynamo St. Petersburg
(6) Dynamo Balashikha 1-1 (11) Neftyanik Almetyevsk
(7) THK Tver 0-2 (10) Rubin Tyumen
(8) Zauralye Kurgan 1-1 (9) Sokol Krasnoyarsk
So, a potential upset in the works between the seven and ten seeds, as Rubin Tyumen look to knock off THK Tver. Last year’s Bratina Cup champions, Neftyanik Almetyevsk, slipped to 11th this season, at least in part due to the departure of goalie Timur Bilyalov. Bilyalov won the playoff MVP award last season and then departed for the Ak Bars Kazan organization; despite another strong campaign, he missed the VHL playoffs this time around as a member of Ak Bars’ farm team, Bars Kazan. Neftyanik’s opponents in last season’s finals, Izhstal Izhevsk, just barely snuck into the playoffs this time (their run in 2015-16 was something of an oddity, as they came into that post-season as the #10 seed). So it would appear likely that we will have two new finalists when all is said and done in 2016-17.
It was a very good season for the league’s two Kazakh teams, Torpedo Ust-Kamenogorsk and Saryarka Karaganda. They finished the regular season in first and third place, respectively, with SKA St. Petersburg’s farm team SKA-Neva in between them in second place. Torpedo have stated that they have KHL aspirations, and this season will have done those hopes no harm whatsoever, especially if they can finish it off with a long playoff run.
As for players to watch? Well, Toros Neftekamsk’s big line of Stanislav Golovanov (47 gp, 18-27-45), Artyom Gordeyev (49 gp, 21-23-44), and Igor Cherkasov (42 gp, 14-26-40) finished 1-2-3 in league scoring, and Toros could also boast the best point-scoring defenceman on the circuit, in Ilya Bochkov (44 gp, 7-18-25). The VHL’s top sniper was Saryarka’s Oleg Lomako, with 22 goals. Interestingly, Torpedo Ust-Kamenogorsk potted the most goals as a team, with 160, and managed to do so without having a single player in the league’s top ten point-scorers. That suggests something about their team depth.
Yegor Nazarov, a Traktor Chelyabinsk prospect currently playing for Sputnik Nizhny Tagil, was the top goalie of the VHL regular season, with a .955 save percentage in 22 games. He has been even better in the playoffs, stopping 58 of 59 shots in Sputnik’s two games so far. And you might wish to file away, for future reference, the name of Alexei Melnichuk. SKA-Neva’s 18-year-old ‘keeper split the season between the VHL and MHL (Russia’s top junior league); in the former he played 17 games and posted a .932 sv%, good for seventh overall. When we consider that Igor Shestyorkin, who had a spectacular season as a KHL rookie goalie for SKA this season, graduated from the SKA-Neva ranks, we have reason to be optimistic about Melnichuk’s future. I should note, however, that Melnichuk has yet to draw into a VHL playoff game, as his team has opted to go with the more experienced Yevgeny Ivannikov so far.
Speaking of SKA-Neva, they also have an intriguing young defenceman on the books in Andrei Churkin. Just 20 years old, he played his first full VHL season in 2016-17, and led the entire league in goals by a blueliner with 10 in 48 games.
A final note on the VHL: the league has a pleasant habit of streaming its games live and for free on YouTube. Check out their channel here for upcoming broadcasts.
Speaking of the MHL, mentioned briefly above, Russia’s highest-tier junior league has not yet finished its regular season, although just a handful of games remain. I’ll post the first-round matchups here once they are determined.
We will close with a quick update to yesterday’s update on the KHL, whose West Conference series played their Game 4s today. SKA St. Petersburg and CSKA Moscow finished off sweeps of Vityaz Moscow Oblast and Jokerit Helsinki, respectively. Vityaz wrote one the nice stories of the 2016-17 KHL season, but they were in over their heads against SKA; the St. Petersburg giants out-scored them 23-6 in the series. CSKA versus Jokerit was closer despite ending in the minimum four games; all four contests were settled by a single goal, three of them in overtime (Geoff Platt scored the series-ender in extra time today).
Elsewhere, Dinamo Minsk were staring into the abyss against Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, but rallied with a 4-2 home victory to survive for another game. Lokomotiv still lead the series three games to one. And, for the fourth time in four games, Dynamo Moscow and Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod went to overtime. Maxim Karpov potted the winner for Dynamo in this one, and they now lead the series three games to one.
Game 4 in each of the East Conference series goes on Tuesday; Metallurg Magnitogorsk, up 3-0 against Kunlun Red Star Beijing, are the only team with a chance at a sweep.
We will get caught up on the KHL playoffs later in the week, but next post here, tomorrow or Wednesday, will be the regular women’s hockey update. Thank you for reading!