2017-18 KHL Playoff Preview: East Conference, Round 1
The East Conference of the KHL was a close thing this season, with just 12 points separating first place from the final playoff spot in eighth (less than the gap between fourth and eighth in the West). And that makes picking a winner a little more difficult than it might be in some cases. However, we have forged on regardless, so read on for a preview of the four first-round series, all of which will begin on Sunday!
(1) Ak Bars Kazan vs. (8) Amur Khabarovsk
Amur suffered a dreadful start to the season, taking just 12 of their first 42 possible points, but kept faith with coach Andrei Martemyanov and were rewarded with a first playoff appearance since 2011-12. The season completely turned around; in fact, had Amur done as well in the first quarter (by points percentage) as they did in the last three, they would have finished on top of the East Conference. Part of the problem at season’s start was a very rough stretch for talismanic goalie Juha Metsola, but the tiny Finnish acrobat got back on form to haul his sv% up to a league-average .923. Amur may also have uncovered a rising star of Russian hockey this season, in forward Alexei Byvaltsev. The 24-year-old tripled his previous career bests for goals and points with a line of 56 gp, 19-24-43. But Amur’s two biggest weapons in this series are likely the devilish road trip they inflict on visitors (5500 km. and seven time zones by air from Kazan), plus the fact that they just this season switched to an NHL-sized rink.
Those last two items (not to mention Metsola and Byvaltsev) will be of concern to Ak Bars, but the Tatar team, a perennial East powerhouse, certainly has the players to deal with the situation. Justin Azevedo missed time due to injury, but still scored 28 points (15 goals) in 31 games, while new arrival Anton Lander led the team in assists with 29 and Vladimir A. Tkachyov was tops with 22 goals. And I have not even mentioned their points leader, Jiří Sekáč (50 gp, 16-26-42), nor former Montreal Canadiens standout defenseman Andrei Markov, still a force all-round at 39 years old (55 gp, 5-28-33). Ak Bars also have an excellent goalie in Emil Garipov (47 gp, .931 sv%), and are coached by the eminently experienced Zinetula Bilyaletdinov. It all adds up to a team without any really serious weaknesses at all, even if there are some questions about whether important forward Danis Zaripov will be healthy enough to start the series.
Prediction: Amur were a match for Ak Bars over the last 40 games of the season, but there’s too much experience on the Tatar side, and Bilyaletdinov will be very eager to see that his team need not travel to the Far East more than once. Ak Bars in five.
(2) Salavat Yulaev Ufa vs. (7) Avangard Omsk Oblast
Here we have two teams who made the playoffs only in the last days, but Salavat Yulaev have the bigger reasons to be optimistic. The Bashkirs had a poor start to the season, but recovered to take top spot in the Cheryshyov division and with it the second conference seed and home-ice advantage. Salavat Yulaev did major work at the deadline, taking advantage of Admiral Vladivostok’s fire-sale to add the likes of skilled forward Vladimir E. Tkachyov and useful goalie Ivan Nalimov (the latter may prove particularly important, as Ben Scrivens struggled a bit in Ufa this season, and then was injured playing for Canada at the Olympics). Nalimov joins Andrei Kareyev (18 gp, .933 sv%) in a solid-looking though youthful goaltending tandem, assuming Scrivens can’t go yet. Tkachyov, meanwhile, becomes part of a very decent offensive group that includes top-five KHL scorer Linus Omark (55 gp, 16-39-55, and just re-signed for two years), 20-goal man Teemu Hartikainen, and the league’s top point-getter from defense in Philip Larsen (54 gp, 11-27-38). Finnish coach Erkka Westerlund kept his job through the early struggles, and does not lack for experience.
Avangard, on the other hand, told nearly the opposite story this season. After a very good start, the Omsk team went backwards, and eventually coach Andrei Skabelka was fired and replaced by Germany Titov. Titov did not really arrest the slide, but he did slow it down just enough for Avangard to make the playoffs by the very narrowest of narrow margins in the end. There are some good players here for sure; both goalies (Dominik Furch and Oleg Shilin) are above-average, while former Philadelphia Flyer Yevgeny Medvedev (54 gp, 11-19-30) leads a very solid defence group. In fact, Avangard gave up the fewest goals of any East playoff team, with just 116. Scoring is a question-mark, though Ilya Mikheyev scored a very handy 19 goals.
Prediction: We might look at Avangard’s +32 goal differential, compare it to Salavat Yulaev’s +12, and wonder who should be the favourite here. But the Ufa team is coming in hot, and the Omsk side is not, and that, I think, will make the difference in this one. Salavat Yulaev in six.
(3) Traktor Chelyabinsk vs. (6) Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk
Neftekhimik will be chagrined to have ended up in sixth, as they entered the season’s final two games with a shot at topping the conference. But forget the disappointing finale; the very fact that the little team from Tatarstan was “there or thereabouts” at the end speaks of a remarkable campaign. Forward Emil Galimov was an astute early acquisition from Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, as he went on to lead Neftekhimik in goals with 15. A late-season acquisition, also looking very good, was Nikita Filatov, who scored six points in eight games after coming over from Lada Tolyatti, while another former Lada player, goalie Ilya Yezhov (acquired last summer), stopped shots at a .930 rate over 50 games. There were contributions from returning players as well; Dan Sexton, in his fifth season in Nizhnekamsk, tied for third in the league in assists with 35 and posted 47 points in 52 games to lead the team. And, however grudgingly we do so, we must give credit to coach Andrei Nazarov. The notorious firebrand kept his nose clean this year, and showed — as he has before in his career — a knack for getting a team not deep in talent to play above itself.
However, awaiting Neftekhimik is possibly the East’s most dangerous squad in Traktor Chelyabinsk. Traktor come in having won 12 of their last 14 games, and their only loss in regulation in that stretch came against mighty SKA St. Petersburg. The main reason for their success is not hard to see: Czech puck-stopper Pavel Francouz led all KHL goalies with a .946 sv% in 35 games, while backup Vasily Demchenko was very good as well (28 gp, .931 sv%). And though stopping goals, not scoring them, was Traktor’s bread-and-butter this season, they have some guys who can chip in on offence. Paul Szczechura scored 20 goals (and a team-leading 42 points) in 55 games, while defenceman Nick Bailen contributed 11-19-30 in 56 games. Coach Anvar Gatiyatulin has this team firing on all cylinders at precisely the right moment, and nobody will want to have to deal with them right now.
Prediction: If Francouz continues his strong play, the Conference Final — or better — is not out of reach for the Chelyabinsk team by any means. Hats off to Neftekhimik for a very fine season, but Traktor in five.
(4) Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg vs. (5) Metallurg Magnitogorsk
Talk about spreading the scoring around: Avtomobilist led all East playoff qualifiers with 165 goals scored this season, but had nobody on the team manage more than 31 points. That mark was hit by two forwards, Anatoly Golyshev and Ilya Krikunov (no relation to coach Vladimir Krikunov, by the way). Golyshev’s season was the probably the better one, as his 31 points came in just 40 games, and included 18 goals. A great, and needed, recovery for a fantastic young player who suffered through a dreadful 2016-17 campaign. Speaking of good young players for Avtomobilist, ginormous defenceman Nikita Tryamkin, who returned to his hometown from the NHL this past off-season, now wears the captain’s letter in Yekaterinburg, and scored a decent 25 points in 51 games while leading the KHL in penalty minutes with 109. Also returning to Yekaterinburg this past off-season was fan-favourite goalie Jakub Kovář, and he did just fine with a .926 sv% in 47 games. This is a team on the brink of being very, very, good, although I would feel better about their chances if they had not lost nine of their last eleven games.
And what an odd season it was for Metallurg! After losing the likes of Danis Zaripov, Chris Lee, Alexei Bereglazov, Wojtek Wolski, and Viktor Antipin this past summer, Metallurg understandably struggled out of the gate, and fired coach Ilya Vorobiev in early November (Viktor Kozlov came in as his replacement). Then Lee and Bereglazov came back to strengthen the defence, followed shortly by Wolski, only for the sublime Sergei Mozyakin to go out injured. Given the upheaval, fifth place is probably an ok result. And Mozyakin is back, both from his injury and from the Russian team’s trip to the Olympics. Also in South Korea was Metallurg goalie Vasily Koshechkin, who was named best netminder at the Games, and has an excellent .931 sv% in 38 KHL matches this season. He is also, we should note, the reigning KHL playoff MVP, and is backed up by a very good youngster in Ilya Samsonov (26 gp, .926 sv%). As for Mozyakin, despite his injury he still managed 19 goals and 42 points in 42 games, although Matt Ellison led the team in scoring (55 gp, 20-25-45). And it would be remiss of me not to mention the big storyline of this series: Jakub Kovář in net for Avtomobilist facing his brother Jan, who led Metallurg in assists this season (54 gp, 7-28-35).
Prediction: As I mentioned, Avtomobilist are quite close to being an excellent team. But they’re up against a club for whom deep playoff runs are an annual event. We’ll see how much Metallurg’s Olympians have left in the tank, but in any case it should be enough. Metallurg in seven games.
All four East Conference series get underway on Sunday, with Game 2 on Monday. Thank you for reading!