2017-18 KHL Playoff Preview: West Conference, Round 1
The KHL playoffs get underway on Saturday with the opening games of two of the four series in the West Conference. In deference to their large numbers of Olympic players, SKA St. Petersburg and CSKA Moscow will begin their best-of-seven battles with Severstal Cherepovets and Spartak Moscow, respectively, on Sunday. However, Jokerit Helsinki will start on Saturday against HK Sochi, as will Lokomotiv Yaroslavl against Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod. Read on, therefore, for a look at each of West’s match-ups as we get on the road towards the Gagarin Cup!
(1) SKA St. Petersburg vs. (8) Severstal Cherepovets
Severstal Cherepovets have written one of the enthralling tales of this KHL season; named in December as one of the three teams likely to be “contracted” this spring, Severstal may have saved their place in the league by snatching a post-season spot on the last day. The big driver of their success has been the play of forward and captain Dmitry Kagarlitsky. The 28-year-old led Severstal in points and goals (55 gp, 17-28-45), and captained the Tarasov Division team that won the All-Star mini-tournament. Ebullient goalie Július Hudáček was good when he needed to be, too, even with an overall average-ish .920 sv% on the season. Severstal are a hard-working bunch rather than talented (outside of Kagarlitsky), and their presence here in the post-season, for the first time since they made the second round in 2013, is a credit to their perseverance and to coach Alexander Gulyavtsev.
But Severstal’s playoff run is unlikely to be long; their reward for their tremendous regular-season struggle is a date with SKA St. Petersburg. Space does not permit me to say much about the KHL’s best team, except to remind you that about half of the guys who just won gold for the Russian men’s team at the Olympics play their club hockey on the banks of the Neva. There’s KHL scoring champion Ilya Kovalchuk (53 gp, 31-32-63), Nikita Gusev, who finished just a point behind Kovalchuk, and possibly the league’s best scoring defenceman in Patrik Hersley (43 gp, 14-21-35, second in blueline points but in many fewer games). Then there’s the tremendous one-two goaltending punch of Igor Shestyorkin (28 gp, .933 sv%) and Mikko Koskinen (29 gp, .937 sv%). And the whole thing is conducted by Russian national team coach Oleg Znarok, who can be a difficult figure at times but is nobody’s fool, and captained by Pavel Datsyuk. I could go on, too. SKA’s one possible problem will be fatigue, with so many guys having just returned from South Korea.
Prediction: Look, SKA scored 227 goals, 51 more than any other team in the KHL this season; that’s nearly a full goal per game. And Severstal gave up 145, second-most among playoff teams. All due respect to the Cherepovets team (that is a lot of respect indeed), but they’re over-matched against the defending Gagarin Cup champions. SKA in four.
(2) CSKA Moscow vs. (7) Spartak Moscow
This one is a treat for the history-minded fan; there was no bigger rivalry in Soviet hockey than the one between the Central Red Army team CSKA and the trade-union side Spartak. This time around, CSKA are overwhelming favourites, having supplied most of the non-SKA contingent on the Olympic team. Under coach Igor Nikitin, the club rotated players this season, with everybody, including spectacular young star and Olympic hero Kirill Kaprizov, healthy-scratched at one point or another. It worked; CSKA scored 175 goals, second-most in the KHL, and gave up the fewest at 89. Three players (Kaprizov, Sergei Shumakov, and Maxim Shalunov) tied for the team lead with 40 points, with each playing 45 or 46 games, while Shalunov led the way with 20 goals. And CSKA’s impressive defence was backed up by excellent goaltending, as Ilya Sorokin posted a .931 sv% in 37 games, while Lars Johansson was even better at .938 in 21 games. Now we will find out if that rotation system can off-set any Olympics-related fatigue.
As for Spartak, the red-and-whites made the playoffs on the last day, but there is some real quality available to coach Vadim Yepanchintsev. That starts up front, with former Boston Bruins prospect Alexander Khokhlachyov, who led Spartak in goals and points, and was sixth in the league in the latter (52 gp, 19-31-50). And a guy to watch is former standout offensive blueliner Kirill Koltsov. He was acquired at the deadline, after a mediocre 29 games with Traktor Chelyabinsk this season (only nine points, and a horrendous -18); with Spartak he found the range and scored seven points 13 games, going +6. But while the team got good goaltending from journeyman Nikita Bespalov (41 gp, .926 sv%), they do struggle on defence to a degree. No team among those that qualified for the playoffs gave up more goals than Spartak’s 146.
Prediction: Rivalry series can be odd ones, but I think the gap between these two teams is too big for Spartak to overcome in a seven game series. But they’ll make it interesting, and it should be fun hockey! CSKA in six.
(3) Jokerit Helsinki vs. (6) HK Sochi
Jokerit Helsinki nestled into third place in the Conference early on, and simply stayed there; this is a good, consistent, team. Denmark’s Nicklas Jensen scored 19-18-37 to lead Jokerit in points and tied for the best on the team in goals, while Sami Lepistö (56 gp, 7-22-29) and Matt Gilroy (55 gp, 7-20-27) were tremendous playmakers from the back. Meanwhile, American Olympic goalie Ryan Zapolski stopped shots at a .931 rate over 39 games, and led the KHL in shutouts with nine. And I think that’s about it. So, moving right… oh, yes, The Kid! 18-year-old Eeli Tolvanen exploded onto the KHL scene like a supernova this season, breaking any and all records for scoring by a player of his age (49 gp, 19-17-36), and he had a splendid time at the Olympics for Finland as well, with nine points in five games. He’s already a wonderful player, and a joy to watch. KHL fans should watch him, too — he has indicated that he will depart for the NHL’s Nashville Predators after Jokerit are done with these playoffs.
Confronting Tolvanen and the Helsinki side will be something of a wild card in HK Sochi. The team has been beset by financial difficulties for most of its four-year existence, and have often looked on the brink of oblivion. But, they’re still here, and this will actually be their third playoff appearance (they missed out in 2016-17). This squad does have some highly useful players; Canadian Olympian Eric O’Dell was tops in points (47 gp, 14-18-42, +22), young forward Pavel Padakin seems to be a player on the rise (53 gp, 9-22-31, +21), and at the back there is a solid all-rounder in Nikita Shchitov (46 gp, 2-12-14, +18). The reason I mention their plus-minus stats? The next-best +/- on the team was +9, so something odd is going there — at the very least, it looks like coach Sergei Zubov knows exactly how and when to deploy the three of them. Sochi’s goaltending is fine but no more than that, with capable veteran Konstantin Barulin (35 gp, .920 sv%) and Dmitry Shikin (28 gp, .926 sv%).
Prediction: As mentioned, Sochi have made the playoffs twice already in their brief history, but have yet to actually win a playoff game. They’ll break that streak this time, but don’t have quite enough to slip by Jokerit, so we will get to watch Mr. Tolvanen in the KHL for at least one more series. Jokerit in six.
(4) Lokomotiv Yaroslavl vs. (5) Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod
What to make of Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod? The potted only 116 goals this season, fewest among KHL playoff teams (and fifth-fewest in the whole league), their top goal- and point-man, Yegor Dugin, had a line of 52 gp, 12-26-28, and their best goalie was Ivan Lisutin, who posted an average-ish .921 sv% in 26 games. Yet here they are in their accustomed solid playoff spot, having won 29 games. Well part of the reason is behind the bench, where longtime coach Pēteris Skudra has shown himself adept at wringing every last bit of potential out of a team whose depth and talent have been hurt by money shortages over the past few seasons. Another part of the reason is a very solid defence group, led by the under-rated Denis Barantsev and Mikhail Grigoryev. It is worth noting that Lisutin, despite his middle-of-the-pack save percentage, tied for eighth in the league in goals-against average, at 1.99. This team always seems to find a way to make things very difficult for its opponents.
And Torpedo’s opponent this time is Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, coming off an unlikely run to the Conference Final in 2016-17 (their upset of CSKA in the second round was a thunderous one). Lokomotiv have had some peaks and valleys in 2017-18, however; a bad start necessitated a coaching change (Dmitry Kvartalnov replaced Alexei Kudashov), and the team’s usually superb goalie Alexei Murygin stumbled to a dreadful .900 sv% in an injury-ravaged campaign. Fortunately, nominal backup netminder Alexander Sudnitsin was on hand to save the day with a decent .926 sv% over 35 games. The team’s top scorer, unusually, was a defenceman — Staffan Kronwall tied for second in the KHL in blueline points by going 55 gp, 10-25-35, while Brandon Kozun led the forwards with 33 points in 53 games. Lokomotiv do lack a real sniper (Daniil Apalkov was their best with 15 goals), but still found the net a respectable 148 times by spreading the scoring around.
Prediction: In the final analysis, Lokomotiv gave up only two more goals than Torpedo this season, but scored 32 more. And there is another ominous factor for Torpedo fans: the above-mentioned stalwart defenceman Grigoryev broke his leg in early February and has only just started skating again. Torpedo will be tough to deal with, as always, but I think the Yaroslavl comes through this time. Lokomotiv in six.
Tomorrow evening, the East! And thank you for reading!