The Gagarin Cup Final is Set!
The Final of the 2017-18 Gagarin Cup playoffs is indeed set: CSKA Moscow, in something of a surprise, will take on Ak Bars Kazan for the KHL championship, with Game 1 of the Final going on April 14th.
But before we start our discussion of the Conference Finals, the KHL results were of course not the big hockey news of the weekend. That occurred on a wintry stretch of highway in rural Saskatchewan, where the bus carrying 29 players and staff of the Humboldt Broncos, who play in the Junior A Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, collided with a transport truck. Fifteen passengers on the bus were killed, and the other 14 injured, some very seriously. Junior hockey is a huge thing on the Canadian prairies, and indeed in many other places, and those long bus rides between towns are a staple of growing up for kids on sports teams, in clubs, and involved in school, church, and community groups; this is a devastatingly tragic blow, obviously, not only for the victims and their families, but for the town of Humboldt as well. Many will recall the bus accident involving another Saskatchewan junior team, the WHL’s Swift Current Broncos, in 1986. And for those of us who follow Russian hockey, there are shades of the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl air disaster in 2011.
Notes of condolence for the victims of the accident have poured in from all over, including statements from the Russian Hockey Federation and from KHL teams Dynamo Moscow and Spartak Moscow, among others. Much has also been written about the tragedy; there is far too much to link to it all, but I would particularly recommend this piece by Gregg Drinnan, and this one by Roy MacGregor. And allow me here to add my own condolences and warm thoughts to all the victims of this horrendous accident.
Read on, as we go back to the KHL.
While the West Conference Final series between CSKA and SKA might not have gone the full seven games, it enjoyed a suitably dramatic finish between hands-down the KHL’s two best teams. Today’s Game 6 saw SKA break out to a 2-0 lead within the first five minutes, prompting CSKA coach Igor Nikitin to insert backup goalie Lars Johansson in place of Ilya Sorokin. Johansson got the job done too, stopping all 33 shots he faced. With CSKA still trailing 2-1 late in the third, former Buffalo Sabres and Colorado Avalanche prospect Mikhail Grigorenko came to the fore; he scored CSKA’s equalizer with under four minutes left on the clock. Then, ten minutes into overtime, it was Grigorenko again, snapping home a rebound to send his team to the Final. The two goals gave Grigorenko nine on the post-season, currently the best total in the KHL.
The result meant, among other things, that for the tenth straight season the KHL’s regular-season champion will not win the Gagarin Cup — a shock for a SKA team that was utterly dominant during the regular season. It also likely means the end of Ilya Kovalchuk’s current stint in the KHL, as the SKA forward has announced that he will return to the NHL for next season and possibly beyond. But the big story of the West Final may have been CSKA’s Johansson. With Ilya Sorokin starting to falter a bit after his unbelievably hot start to the playoffs, Johansson came on in relief in Games 3 and 6, and played all of Game 5 for SKA. In all, the 30-year-old Swede faced 74 shots in the series… and made 74 saves. Something of a dilemma now for coach Nikitin, but we will have more on that in a future post.
CSKA and SKA had split the first two games of the series in St. Petersburg, before SKA won Game 3 in Moscow by a 5-2 score. They were leading in Game 4, 1-0, headed into the third period, but that was where the series began to turn. Two quick CSKA goals secured the Moscow team a 2-1 victory, thus avoiding the dreaded 3-1 deficit in games. Game 5, back in St. Petersburg, saw the teams go scoreless into the late stages before Kirill Kaprizov scored the only goal of the match with just six minutes left for a 1-0 CSKA victory. That set the stage for Grigorenko’s heroics in Game 6, and so it is CSKA on to the Final which they last visited in 2015-16 (they were beaten in seven games by Metallurg Magnitogorsk on that occasion).
Ak Bars Kazan’s four-game sweep of Traktor Chelyabinsk in the East Final, meanwhile, was perhaps closer than it appeared, as the first three games were decided by a single goal (one of them in overtime), and the fourth by two but including an empty-netter at 19:59 of the third period. On the other hand, Ak Bars out-shot their opponent by a margin of 19 per game, and Traktor goalies Pavel Francouz and Vasily Demchenko saw a lot of rubber coming their way, so perhaps those scores are a bit deceptive too. Of particular note: Ak Bars succeeded in completely shutting down Traktor’s 18-year-old budding star Vitaly Kravtsov, who was held without a point after scoring 6-5-11 in the first 12 games of the playoffs. No shame in that at all for Kravtsov, who remains one of the big stories of the 2017-18 post-season, and no shame for Traktor either; they had a tremendous season.
Not shut down at all was Ak Bars forward Justin Azevedo, who recorded six points in the series against Traktor, and now leads all KHL post-season scorers with a line of 7-14-21 in 14 games. He is almost certain now to win the playoff scoring title, as he is nine points ahead of the next still-active player (CSKA’s hero Grigorenko, at 16 gp, 9-3-12). As for his team, they are back in the Final for the fourth time overall, having last appeared there in 2014-15 when they lost to SKA.
We will have lot more about the match-up between CSKA and Ak Bars in a Gagarin Cup Final preview later on this week. The pairing for the Final of the Kharlamov Cup, in Russia’s top junior league (the MHL) is also now set, and we will look at that anon as well (quick spoiler: the Final will feature Loko Yaroslavl against SKA-1946 St. Petersburg). Tomorrow, however, a preview of the first round of the Women’s Hockey League playoffs, which begin on Tuesday! Thank you for reading!