KHL Conference Finals Preview
We’re a day late, if not a dollar short, with this preview; the West Conference Final actually got underway today as CSKA Moscow visited SKA in St. Petersburg. It was a wild and entertaining game, that featured one of the “cometh the hour, cometh the man” storylines that the playoffs toss up every once in awhile. CSKA’s Andrei Kuzmenko, who scored a 13-12-25 in 45 games this season and actually spent some time on the farm team in the VHL, popped up to score a hat-trick, the third goal of which secured his team a 5-4 win in overtime. So CSKA, perhaps a touch surprisingly, have the early 1-0 series lead. Can they hold on to it? And what will happen in the East series between Ak Bars Kazan and Traktor Chelyabinsk (that one starts tomorrow)? Read on…
(1) SKA St. Petersburg vs. (2) CSKA Moscow
CSKA did not really need to much in the way of offense to defeat Spartak in the first round (more on that in a bit), but some guys have now started to put up crooked numbers through their second-round six-game defeat of Jokerit Helsinki. Mikhail Grigorenko, in particular, is having a nice playoffs, with six goals and two assists in 11 games, while Sergei Andronov has already found the net five times in 11 matches (an impressive feat, given that he scored just three times in 41 regular-season contests). As for the prodigious Kirill Kaprizov, he has scored but one goal in these playoffs, but does have seven assists (including today’s, which was of the “stunning” variety). So there’s definitely some offensive power to be found on the CSKA roster.
But, today’s five-goal outburst aside, this team generally lives and dies by its ability to prevent goals, and earlier in the post-season they were very good at it indeed. Goalie Ilya Sorokin posted five shutouts in his first six games, giving up just a single goal in the entire series against Spartak. He fell back to earth a bit as the Jokerit series rolled along (how could he not?), but still owns a very very good .952 sv% in 725 minutes of action. And he is helped out by a resolute defense. Sorokin has had under 21 shots to deal with per 60 minutes in these playoffs, and despite his slight regression (and four goals against today), his GAA stands at 0.99. So opponents would be well advised to take their chances when they can find them.
As for SKA, they have relied on a balanced attack up front; 15 forwards have already recorded a point in this post-season, with the veteran star Ilya Kovalchuk (10 gp, 5-4-9) and the younger up-and-comer Nikita Gusev (10 gp, 4-5-9) leading the way. The other names atop the scoring leaderboard for SKA are well-known ones too, as Vadim Shipachyov and Pavel Datsyuk have found the net four times apiece. There have been some contributions from other figures as well. Viktor Tikhonov, an almost-forgotten (and oft-benched) figure these days, popped to score a pair of goals at a key moment in SKA’s five-game second-round win over Lokomotiv Yaroslavl.
As far as goal-prevention is concerned, SKA are a bit like CSKA-lite. Mikko Koskinen, who has been coach Oleg Znarok’s choice in these playoffs over the younger Igor Shestyorkin, has a .933 sv% through ten games — not Ilya Sorokin good, but pretty good nonetheless. And SKA’s defence has held the opposition to about 24 shots per 60 minutes. Again, that’s quite good (very good, in fact), but not as a strong as CSKA’s backliners.
So what are we to make of it all? Well, SKA are probably slightly better at the goal-scoring, while CSKA are better at the goal-preventing. Both these teams showed a bit of fragility in their second-round wins, but likely nothing to be too concerned about. This highly-anticipated series has every chance to go the distance, and I think — despite their Game 1 loss — it will be SKA standing at the end of it. SKA in seven.
(1) Ak Bars Kazan vs. (3) Traktor Chelyabinsk
It was no great shock to see Ak Bars Kazan get by Metallurg Magnitogorsk in Round 2 — they are both good teams, but one of them had to lose — but it was a surprise that it took the Tatar giants only five games. And as a further oddity, after all those years establishing a reputation as a lockdown defensive outfit, Ak Bars have a guy blowing the doors off the playoff scoring race. Justin Azevedo has scored 5-10-15 in 10 games, putting him just two points behind the now-eliminated Linus Omark of Salavat Yulaev Ufa, and in four fewer games to boot. Azevedo has been held without a point in just one of Ak Bars’ ten games so far (Game 3 of Round 1 against Amur, for the record). And he’s not all that far ahead of his team-mate Jiří Sekáč (10 gp, 4-8-12). We should also note the performance of Stanislav Galiyev (or Galiev), who has six goals in ten games after scoring just 12 in 52 in the regular season. The main concern for the forward group is the health of Danis Zaripov, who has six points in seven games, but has been in and out of the lineup with a succession of minor ailments. We will see tomorrow if he is good to go again.
And don’t worry: Ak Bars famous defence and goaltending are fine. They are giving up 29 shots per 60 minutes, more or less, but goalie Emil Garipov is stopping them at a fine .938 rate. And Ak Bars defence is chipping in up front; Vasily Tokranov has five points in eight games, including — at age 28 — his first two KHL playoff goals. We do have to wonder a little bit what has become of Andrei Markov; the former Canadiens star, still a prodigious weapon on the powerplay, has just one assist in ten games. However, that minor quibble aside, Ak Bars defence and goaltending is a decent, capable, unit.
In the other corner in the East is Traktor Chelyabinsk, who have trespassed this far into the playoffs for the first time in five seasons after outlasting Salavat Yulaev in seven games in Round 2. The main reason for Traktor’s success is not hard to see at all: goalie Pavel Francouz has posted a .950 sv% through nine games, with backup Vasily Demchenko at .953 in parts of four contests. Francouz had a bit of an injury scare earlier in the post-season, but now seems to be fine. However, the goaltending has had to be strong; Traktor are giving about 38 shots per 60 minutes, and that’s not good at all. They’ve survived so far, but Francouz must start to feel the strain at some point.
Up front, one Traktor player is writing one of the 2017-18 season’s big stories, and it’s young Vitaly Kravtsov. At just 18 years old (and three months), Kravtsov has posted six goals and 11 points in Traktor’s 12 games so far, and that despite playing only 13 minutes per game. It’s been an amazing performance, and we wait to see what he will do next. Kravtsov leads his team in goals, and is third in points behind the under-rated Richard Gynge (12 gp, 5-8-13) and Alexei Kruchinin (12 gp, 4-8-12). Traktor have also gotten some scoring help from the back, as Nick Bailen is the top-scoring defenceman remaining in these playoffs with a line of 3-5-8 in 12 games.
So Traktor certainly have the weapons, and they certainly certainly have the goaltending. But I don’t like that 38 SA/60, and I particularly don’t like it against the likes of Ak Bars’ Azevedo. Traktor did survive a series against an offensive powerhouse in Salavat Yulaev, but I don’t know that they can do it twice. Ak Bars in six.
Thank you for reading!