KHL 2016-17 Conference Finals Preview
Here we are with only four teams still standing in the KHL’s Gagarin Cup Playoffs! The Conference Finals get underway on Thursday (West Conference) and Friday (East), so read on for a bit a preview and some predictions.
(2) SKA St. Petersburg vs. (4) Lokomotiv Yaroslavl
This is not, safe to say, the West Conference Final we were anticipating, but SKA’s presence is not the surprising bit. SKA have continued their lethal form from the regular season, breezing through two rounds in only nine games, and scoring 37 goals while doing so. Yevgeny Dadonov leads the team in goals and points with a relatively modest line of 9 gp, 5-6-11, but SKA have spread the offence around nicely; six players, including defencemen Anton Belov (9 gp, 2-7-9) and Patrik Hersley (7 gp, 3-6-9) , are scoring a point per game or better. One nice surprise has been the play of defensive forward Yevgeny Ketov; after scoring nine goals in 47 regular season games, he has potted five in the post-season to tie Dadonov for the team lead.
An few eyebrows were raised when coach Oleg Znarok named Mikko Koskinen his playoff starter, after the veteran Finn had been superseded during the regular season by young Igor Shestyorkin. The move, however, has worked beautifully. Koskinen has played every minute, and has had the best post-season of any regular starter; he currently holds a .942 save percentage. And the SKA defence has helped by giving up only about 24 shots per 60 minutes, best among the four semi-finalists, although a first-round rout of Vityaz Moscow Oblast probably inflates that number somewhat.
It was supposed to be CSKA Moscow facing SKA in this series, or at least so the standings suggested, but Lokomotiv did the improbable and sent the regular season champs packing in Round 2. Defenceman Jakub Nakládal has been a huge story: he came into this post-season with 33 points in 172 KHL games, but has a line of 6-5-11 so far in 11 playoff contests. Fellow blue-liner Staffan Kronwall is also scoring a point per game (11 gp, 3-8-11). Forward Brandon Kozun, meanwhile, is tied for third in the league in post-season points with a line of 2-12-14 in 11 games.
Lokomotiv may have paid a high price for the upset of CSKA, though. Regular starting goalie Alexei Murygin was injured in Game 4, although that blow was softened by the spectacular play of Alexander Sudnitsin the rest of the way (he stopped 92 of 94 shots in the last two games plus a period of the series — and see video at the start of this post). And in Game 6, Kozun went down with an apparent head injury; the eminently useful Max Talbot was hurt on the same “play,” which earned CSKA’s Grigory Panin two game misconducts and an eight-game suspension. Talbot was able to continue, but Kozun left the game and did not return.
These are the playoffs, so injury info is hard to come by. But even if Kozun and Murygin can return, or if Sudnitsin can keep up his heroics, it is hard to see how Lokomotiv get by SKA. For one thing, the Yaroslavl team gives up 31 shots per 60 minutes, which is about seven more than SKA concede (again, quality of competition has been a factor in that, but still). With the caveat that I didn’t see Lokomotiv beating CSKA, and yet they did, I will say SKA in six.
(1) Metallurg Magnitogorsk vs. (3) Ak Bars Kazan
A quick glance at the KHL’s individual scoring races for these playoffs will remind you right away of Metallurg’s strengths. There sits Danis Zaripov with a line of 9 gp, 11-6-17, leading the league in goals and points. In the latter category, he’s tied with line-mate Jan Kovář (9 gp, 8-9-17), and just ahead of the third member of that troika, Sergei Mozyakin (8 gp, 3-11-14). Also on 14 points (13 of them assists), is Metallurg defenceman Chris Lee. No surprise, then, to find out that Metallurg lead the surviving foursome of teams with 38 post-season goals, despite having played only one game more than the minimum.
Metallurg do have some questions when it comes to the defensive side of the game; in this post-season, their goalies have faced more than 33 shots per 60 minutes of action, which is the heaviest workload by that measure of any of the four semi-finalists. But goalies Vasily Koshechkin (.930 sv%) and Ilya Samsonov (.949, albeit in only 90 minutes) have done well, and when the team is scoring four goals a game, a little defensive frailty can be overcome (we should also consider that Barys Astana, Metallurg’s Round 2 opponents, have some firepower of their own).
In the other corner, we have, for all intents and purposes, Metallurg’s Magnitogorsk’s mirror image in Ak Bars Kazan. The Tatar giants have scored only 26 goals in these playoffs, which is fewest by 11 of any of the four teams still standing — and no team has played more games than Ak Bars’ 11. The goals they do get have tended to come from Fyodor Malykhin or Jiří Sekáč, joint team-leaders with five tallies apiece, while Vladimir Tkachyov leads the roster with nine assists and 11 points. When we compare those numbers to the ones posted by Metallurg’s top scorers, the gap is apparent.
Ak Bars do score some nice goals, though!
On the flipside, Ak Bars are a defensive powerhouse, as has generally been the case under coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov. They give up only 26 or so shots per 60 minutes (only SKA are better in this regard), with the likes of Damir Musin and Atte Ohtamaa proving difficult foes for any forwards breaking into the zone. Those shots that do find their way through have found goalie Emil Garipov in an ungenerous mood (.938 sv%, behind only Koskinen among goalies with more than three appearances).
So something clearly must give in this series, and my guess is that it will be the Ak Bars defence. The Kazan side will slow the opposing scorers down somewhat, but they don’t have enough big shooters of their own to take advantage of Metallurg’s defence. And the gap between the two presumed starting goalies is not large enough to be able to turn the tables. Let’s say Metallurg in six for this one.