The MHL Playoffs are Here!
The 2017-18 regular season of the MHL, Russia’s top men’s junior hockey league came to an end this past Tuesday in dramatic fashion. Russkie Vityazi Chekhov, junior team of the KHL’s Vityaz Moscow Oblast, needed a point from their final game to sneak ahead of MHK Dynamo Moscow and take the last playoff berth in the league’s West Conference. Things look dire for the “Russian Knights,” down 0-1 to HK Riga in the closing stages. But Pavel Gorokhov scored for the Chekhov side, and seven seconds later so did Ilya Chuikov, and that was enough; Russkie Vityazi held on to win 2-1, and with that all the playoff matchups were known. And the post-season hunt for the Kharlamov begins tomorrow — read on, for a look at the pairings and some notes on the regular season!
The first three rounds of the playoffs will be best-of-five, with the Kharlamov Cup final to be best-of-seven. As in the KHL, the top eight from each Conference (West and East) in the 33-team league make the playoffs. After the first two rounds, the teams cross over, with the highest remaining West team playing the lowest remaining East side, and vice-versa. And here are the pairings for the first round (Conference seedings in brackets):
- (1) Loko Yaroslavl vs. (8) Russkie Vityazi Chekhov
- (2) SKA-1946 St. Petersburg vs. (7) Krylya Sovetov Moscow
- (3) Spartak Moscow vs. (6) Almaz Cherepovets
- (4) Dynamo St. Petersburg vs. (5) Krasnaya Armiya Moscow
- (1) Mamonty Yugry Khanty-Mansiysk vs. (8) Irbis Kazan
- (2) Stalnye Lisy Magnitogorsk vs. (7) Reaktor Nizhnekamsk
- (3) Sibirskie Snaipery Novosibirsk vs. (6) Belye Medvedi Chelyabinsk
- (4) Avto Yekaterinburg vs. (5) Tolpar Ufa
In the West, the season belonged to Loko Yaroslavl, who finished with a 56-8 record for 162 points, scored the second-most goals in the league (164) and gave up the second-fewest (112). Loko, junior side of Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, were a well-balanced outfit, with few in the way of individual stars. However, we should note the play of goalie Daniil Isayev. Though he appeared in only 19 games this season, the 18-year-old Yaroslavl product recorded five shutouts, and, had he played enough to qualify, his .936 sv% would have ranked him second in the league. Loko are perennial powerhouses at his level: West Conference regular season champions four times in the past five seasons, and Kharlamov Cup winners in 2015-16.
Loko’s past success lies in stark contrast to that “enjoyed” by Mamonty Yugry Khanty-Mansiysk, the 2017-18 MHL East Conference winners with a 49-11 record and 140 points. Not only is this the first Conference title for the “Yugra Mammoths,” junior side of Ugra Khanty-Mansiysk, but they missed the playoffs in each of the last two seasons. What changed? Well, the Mammoths got tremendous scoring from two 20-year-old players in 2017-18; Denis Yerkin (50 gp, 24-47-71) was tied for second in the league in points, while Denis Gaideik (54 gp, 25-42-67) was fourth. This is of course a very interesting season to have Mamonty Yugry atop the East. Their parent club finished dead last in the KHL, and is a prime candidate for contraction; the junior side’s success will certainly be cited by Ugra as an argument for their being allowed to remain, when the KHL’s Board meets to discuss the issue on April 1st.
As for the defending champions, that would be Krasnaya Armiya, CSKA Moscow’s youngsters, who beat Reaktor Nizhnekamsk in last year’s final. Krasnaya Armiya slipped back to fifth in the West this season, but with a pretty good 44-17 record, and they do bring an exceptional talent to the table again this year in 18-year-old forward Yegor Filin. Out of the “small and skilled” drawer (he’s 5’8″ and just over 150 lbs.), Filin scored 20-44-64 in 60 games this season, good for a sixth-place overall tie in points. This is Filin’s second full year in the MHL (he had ten points in 44 games in 2016-17), and he seems to have found the range in a big way. Not that that’s a huge surprise; he once scored 136 points in 43 games for Dizel Penza’s U16 team.
Neither of the MHL’s two “new” teams in 2017-18 flourished, it must be said. The KHL’s Kunlun Red Star Beijing founded a junior side, Kunlun Red Star Juniors, which played its home games in Riga, Latvia. The Juniors’ 26-39 record was not jaw-droppingly awful, but it was only enough for 13th place out of 17 in the West. As for Kapitan Stupino, not technically a new outfit as they returned to the MHL after having played in the league up until 2015, they did not have a good time at all. HK Sochi’s junior side posted only an 11-49 record, and finished last in the West aned in the league by a fair distance. Nor was it a good campaign for the MHL’s four-team non-Russian contingent. In addition to the above-mentioned KRS Juniors, Latvia’s HK Riga missed the playoffs in the West, as did the Kazakh duo of Snezhnye Barsy Astana and Altai Ust-Kamenogorsk in the East.
So who to watch in the MHL playoffs? Well, the Loko, Mamonty Yugry, and Krasnaya Armiya players I’ve mentioned above are good places to start, as is Dynamo Moscow’s Alexander Petunin (see photo at top). Petunin, 21-years-old, had nine points in eight MHL games this season, but spent most of his time up in the KHL, where he was twice named Rookie of the Month. The big team missed the playoffs, so he’s available again to the junior side, and should be a force to be reckoned with. And on that note, teams with KHL parent clubs that either miss the playoffs in the big league or get knocked out early can benefit from that seeming misfortune; both of last year’s Kharlamov Cup finalists got tremendous help from young players sent down after their KHL teams finished for the season.
I would also mention the goaltending tandem at SKA-1946 St. Petersburg. Nikita Lysenkov (.939 sv%) and Konstantin Volkov (.935) were first and second respectively in the MHL in save percentage this season, and and could make for a very pleasant problem for parent club SKA St. Petersburg in a year or two. And there is also a trio of real scoring threats at the other St. Petersburg club, Dynamo; blueliner Pavel Yelshansky (64 gp, 5-36-41) was top scorer among the league’s defencemen, while forwards Anton Vasilyev (63 gp, 25-46-71) and Nikita Dynyak (61 gp, 35-30-65) were second (tied) and fifth in overall points respectively. Dynyak also tied for the league lead in goals.
Sadly, the MHL’s top scorer will not be joining the post-season party this time around, at least not in the MHL. Kuznetskie Medvedi Novokuznetsk’s Anton Ruban had a line of 59 gp, 35-45-80, but that was not enough to get his team to the playoffs. However, parent club Metallurg Novokuznetsk are still going in the VHL post-season, and it is entirely possible that the 20-year-old Ruban will get a call-up.
On a personal note, out of historical sentimentality I’ll be pulling for Krylya Sovetov Moscow as long as they’re still going. Giants of the sport in the Soviet era, Krylya Sovetov were twice champions of the USSR, and supplied a number of excellent players to the Soviet national team. But they fell on hard times thereafter, and as recently as a couple of years ago were operating only as a hockey school. The team’s return to major junior competition last season was a welcome one, and may presage a future bid to join the KHL. And I will be keeping an eye on Metallurg Magnitogorsk’s junior side, Stalnye Lisy, in case they decide to give Andrei Mozyakin his post-season junior debut. The 16-year-old son of the famous Sergei appeared for the first time this season, although the results — one assist in 12 games — were modest if understandably so given his age.
To finish up, you can watch all the MHL playoff action live at the league’s YouTube page! Note that the games often take place in the afternoon in Russia, so watch the time change particularly if you’re in North America. We’ll be back with an update when the first round is over. Thank you for reading!