Big Smiles and Broken Hearts
Today was going to be a day of high drama in the KHL, as the regular season’s final games were played with four playoff spots still to be handed out, and with seven of the eight first-round playoff match-ups still unknown. And there would be nervousness aplenty before it all got sorted out, but sorted it is; read on, for a quick recap of the day’s playoff battles and look at how the first-round pairings have shaped up!
In the East, Amur Khabarovsk came into the day needing only a win against their geographic rivals Admiral Vladivostok for a first playoff berth since 2011-12. But nerves set in; Michal Jordán’s goal for Amur cancelled out Konstantin Gavrikov’s opener for Admiral, but thereafter the Khabarovsk side failed to find the net despite good opportunities. The match went to a shootout, where Admiral won it. So Amur got only a single point from the game, and that meant some anxious scoreboard-watching for the team and its fans. But all was well in end (for Amur, anyway), as favourable news arrived from Novosibirsk in the form of a 4-1 victory for visiting Traktor Chelyabinsk over Sibir. Amur’s six-year playoff drought is over, and it is hard not to be thrilled for, among others, team president Alexander Mogilny, a major architect of the club’s resurgence.
The loss to Traktor, meanwhile, meant that it was now the turn of Sibir and their fans to keep a nervous eye on the ticker. For them, however, the day would end in heartbreak. Anything but an Avangard Omsk win in regulation versus Barys Astana would have been enough for Sibir, and for awhile, with Barys leading 3-1 in the second period, things looked good. But Danil Failzullin and Kirill Semyonov scored for Avangard to make it 3-3, and with just a minute left in the third period, and the their net empty in a tied game, the Omsk side won it on Semyon Koshelev’s goal. The result meant that it is Avangard, not Sibir, that will contest the post-season (in fact, the victory over Barys was enough to catapult Avangard over Amur and into seventh). It will be cold comfort to fans in Novosibirsk that even having their team involved in the playoff hunt on the last day was something of an achievement for Sibir, who suffered a tough 2017 off-season.
And so the East Conference first-round playoff match-ups look like this (seedings in brackets):
- (1) Ak Bars Kazan vs. (8) Amur Khabarovsk
- (2) Salavat Yulaev Ufa vs. (7) Avangard Omsk Oblast
- (3) Traktor Chelyabinsk vs. (6) Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk
- (4) Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg vs. (5) Metallurg Magnitogorsk
All four East Conference series will begin on Sunday, March 4th.
In the West, Severstal Cherepovets had taken three unlikely points from CSKA, in Moscow, on Tuesday, albeit from a CSKA side that rested most of its Olympians. SKA St. Petersburg were not quite so obliging for Thursday’s game, dressing most of their returnees from South Korea (the only two rested were Ilya Kovalchuk and Pavel Datsyuk). But Severstal, needing just a point for their first playoff visit in five years, proved undaunted by the task. This game belonged to the goalies, as SKA’s Igor Shestyorkin and Severstal’s Július Hudáček battled each other through 60 minutes of scoreless hockey. And that was enough — the single point for getting to overtime clinched the post-season for Severstal, and it mattered not a whit to anyone that SKA went on to win the game in a shootout. And the fairytale written by the team from Cherepovets in 2017-18 may just have saved their spot in the KHL next season as well.
Incidentally, that game did have one other effect. Recent Olympic final hero Nikita Gusev played for SKA, but (obviously) failed to record a point. That means that Ilya Kovalchuk, with 63 points in 53 games, is the 2017-18 KHL scoring champion, finishing one point ahead of his team-mate Gusev. “Kovi” becomes the first player other than Sergei Mozyakin or Alexander Radulov to win a points title in the KHL era.
Severstal’s qualification for the playoffs put added weight on the outcome of the derby game between Spartak and Dynamo Moscow, as it was no longer possible for both those teams to make the playoffs. Dynamo needed all three points from the game, and for the first couple of periods they carried the play. But on the scoreboard, things remained tight. Spartak took the lead, Dynamo recaptured it with two goals in a minute, and Spartak equalized to send matters into the third period tied at two apiece. There, it was the red and white team that asserted itself; Spartak outshot Dynamo 14-9 in the final frame, and got goals from Vyacheslav Leshchenko and Ben Maxwell for a 4-2 lead. Though wily old Ilya Nikulin set up a nerve-wracking finale by getting Dynamo to within one with 1:20 to play, Spartak held on for the 4-3 victory, and thus a first playoff berth in seven years. As previously mentioned here a couple of times, Dynamo become the first team to have both won the Gagarin Cup and missed the playoffs in the KHL era.
The West Conference first-round match-ups will look like this:
- (1) SKA St. Petersburg vs. (8) Severstal Cherepovets
- (2) CSKA Moscow vs. (7) Spartak Moscow
- (3) Jokerit Helsinki vs. (6) HK Sochi
- (4) Lokomotiv Yaroslavl vs. (5) Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod
To give the returning Olympic gold medalists an extra day of rest, the KHL has decided to move SKA’s and CSKA’s series each back a day, so those two match-ups get underway on Sunday March 4th. The Jokerit and Lokomotiv series will both begin on Saturday, March 3rd. And that means that tomorrow there will be a West Conference preview up here, taking a somewhat detailed look at each of the four pairings!
Thank you for reading!