2016-17 Gagarin Cup Final Preview!
The wait has been a long one; it was March 30th the last time we watched KHL playoff action, but we’re back on track tomorrow with the opening game of the ninth edition of the Gagarin Cup Final! SKA St. Petersburg, the 2015 winners of the trophy and coming off a sweep of surprise West Conference Finalists Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, will be in Magnitogorsk to confront defending champions Metallurg, whose own East Conference Final sweep came at the expense of defensive powerhouse Ak Bars Kazan.
We really could not ask for a better final in pure hockey terms. These two teams combined to score 446 goals in the regular season, in 120 games put together, and each has breezed through the the first three rounds of the playoffs in 13 games — just one more than the minimum in each case. This could — and should — be a spectacular final; read on for a quick look at each team’s roster.
If you have been reading this blog for any length of time, you need no introduction to Metallurg Magnitogorsk’s big players. The forward line of Jan Kovář (13 gp, 9-14-23), Danis Zaripov (13 gp, 15-7-22), and Sergei Mozyakin (12 gp, 6-15-21) features the top three KHL point-scorers in these playoffs, and they earned some kudos today from former Central Red Army and Soviet national team superstar Boris Mikhailov:
“The game of Magnitka’s first line recalls the game of our line, [and] of Larionov’s line. This is Soviet-Russian hockey in the truest sense of its skill.”
The “our line” referred to was the one that included Mikhailov alongside Vladimir Petrov and Valery Kharlamov, while Larionov’s of course featured him with Sergei Makarov and Vladimir Krutov. Those two lines combined to dominate international hockey for 20 years, and did so beautifully, so this is high praise indeed. Mozyakin, who has spent 2016-17 breaking every scoring record he could find, had been the big story of the season, but even he has been slightly overshadowed by Zaripov’s goal-per-game pace in these playoffs, while Kovář, who as noted leads everyone in points, is profoundly under-rated as both a sniper and a passer.
That big trio is joined in Metallurg’s attack by Canadian defenceman Chris Lee, currently fourth in KHL post-season points at 13 gp, 1-17-18, to go with a team-leading +15. His usual partner on the blueline these days is the oft-overlooked Viktor Antipin, a good all-round rearguard who has scored 4-4-8 in 13 games in these playoffs. The team will miss, at the back, the play-making contributions of Alexei Bereglazov, who had six assists in eight games before going down with an injury in the second round against Barys Astana; no word on his return. However, the defence has been ably supported this post-season by excellent goaltending from starter Vasily Koshechkin (12 gp, .944sv%), and World Juniors standout Ilya Samsonov has not faltered when called upon in his capacity as backup (2 gp, .949sv%). In short, while it is not Metallurg’s calling-card particularly, the team is amply competent when it comes to preventing goals as well as scoring them.
If Metallurg do have a weakness, it may be a certain top-heaviness in the attack. Outside of the big three, no forward on the team has more than six points in these playoffs. Oskar Osala is a good forward who has a hat-trick in the 2016-17 post-season, but he has been very quiet apart from that (13 gp, 4-0-4), and we wonder at the impact of having lost the capable Wojtek Wolski to a season-ending injury back before Christmas. If SKA can figure out a way to stop Mozyakin and Co. (an unprecedented feat that would be), Metallurg will need someone to take a big step forward.
As for SKA St. Petersburg, their attack, which broke a KHL record by scoring 249 goals in the 2016-17 regular season, is a more balanced one. However, there is still a standout scoring line, and it boasts Nikita Gusev (13 gp, 6-8-14), Yevgeny Dadonov (13 gp, 5-9-14), and Vadim Shipachyov (12 gp, 3-11-14); all three are tied for fifth place in post-season scoring, behind the Metallurg gentlemen mentioned above, and while their numbers are well off the league leaders, all are producing at a point-per-game pace. Just behind those three on the SKA forward scoring chart is Finland’s Jarno Koskiranta, and that is something of a welcome surprise for the St. Petersburg team. Koskiranta scored 12-6-18 in 57 regular season games, but is already at 13 gp, 6-4-10 for the playoffs. SKA also have both Yevgeny Ketov and Ilya Kovalchuk on five goals apiece at 13 gp, 5-1-6; while the latter’s points have dried up a bit after an excellent regular season, he has certainly been contributing on the goals front. So, as I said, a balanced attack.
And those scoring threats have been bolstered by contributions from a pair of blueliners. Sweden’s Patrik Hersley, an early-season arrival from Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, has tallied 5-8-13 in 11 games in the playoffs; that puts him one behind his entire regular season points haul, having played 19 fewer games. Anton Belov is also providing a point per game, at 13 gp, 3-10-13, and that too is far above his usual career output. Between the two of them, they have more than covered for the injury absence of Vyacheslav Voinov, who led SKA’s defenseman in scoring during the regular season, but has missed the entire playoffs and is not expected to return until next season. As far as the defensive side of defending is concerned, we should tip the hat to Dinar Khafizullin; he has only three points in the playoffs, but is SKA’s joint leader in plus-minus (with Hersley) at +10.
Finally, SKA’s goaltending has been a story of interest in these playoffs, beginning when coach Oleg Znarok chose as his post-season starter Mikko Koskinen, who had a sub-standard regular season, over young break-out star Igor Shestyorkin, who most assuredly did not. Znarok’s choice paid dividends early on, as Koskinen was rolling along at a .937 sv%… until he got hurt in Game 3 of the Conference Final against Lokomotiv. No problem, though; Shestyorkin showed zero effects of rust, stopping 65 of 66 shots in finishing off the sweep. The word is that Koskinen will be ready to go for the Final, so Znarok once again may face an interesting choice.
SKA’s big worry, if they have one, is injury. We have already mentioned Voinov, although he has hardly been missed, and Koskinen, who seems to be healthy enough to play again. However, conspicuous by his absence is the Magic Man himself, Pavel Datsyuk, who went down with an undisclosed injury during the second-round series against Dynamo Moscow. Datsyuk will miss at least the first three games of the Final, and given that he had eight points in seven games when he went down hurt, that is a significant contribution that is currently unavailable. On the other hand, SKA have not lost a game since Datsyuk’s injury, so clearly they have been able to cope so far.
A final note on SKA: the team has announced that some of the proceeds from their home dates in the Final will be donated to aid the victims of this past week’s bombing of the St. Petersburg Metro.
So, Game 1 of the series tomorrow, in Magnitogorsk, and we will start to find out whether SKA’s depth can overcome the overwhelming ability of Metallurg’s big three, whether the Magnitogorsk team can get some secondary scoring from somewhere, and which team’s goaltending combination of “savvy veteran plus young stud” will come out on top. Whatever happens, this series should be an absolute treat for the fans (Mikhailov’s comments about Metallurg’s Soviet style could just as easily have been directed at SKA), and we can but hope that it will go the full seven games. And that’s all the predicting on it you will get from me…
Thank you for reading!