To the Kharlamov Cup Final!
The field for the Kharlamov Cup Final in the MHL (Russia’s top-tier men’s junior league) is now set, and the series will get underway this coming weekend. This year’s Final will be an all West Conference affair (the MHL crosses over at the semifinal stage), with 2015-16 champions Loko Yaroslavl taking on SKA-1946 St. Petersburg, whose previous best finish was as runners-up in 2014-15.
Loko Yaroslavl’s sweep of Reaktor Nizhnekamsk in the semifinal was a brutal one; the Yaroslavl side almost completely shut down Reaktor’s high-powered front line in winning all three games by a combined score of 14-2. Loko also outshot Reaktor 136-49 in the series, so the result was far from an accident. Yaroslavl goalie Ilya Konovalov had a quiet time of things, but still ran his sv% to .951, best in the MHL post-season among goalies who have played in at least five games (Konovalov has played in ten). And coach Dmitry Krastokin has an intriguing backup plan should Konovalov falter, in the form of 18-year-old Daniil Isayev (.936 sv% in 19 games in 2017-18, his rookie MHL campaign)
Loko spread the scoring around, with several players leading the way with five points apiece in the series. Among them was 18-year-old Nikolai Kovalenko, who now has nine points in seven games in this post-season (and yes, that is indeed the son of former NHLer Andrei Kovalenko).
SKA-1946 St. Petersburg had a little more difficulty in their semifinal against Belye Medvedi Chelyabinsk, although that is a relative measure. SKA-1946 got out to a 2-0 series lead, at which point their opponent reclaimed the services of forward Vitaly Kravtsov, who had been playing for parent club Traktor Chelyabinsk in the KHL. Kravtsov’s arrival helped Belye Medvedi avoid the sweep, with two points in a Game 3 victory, but SKA-1946 came back to finish off the series in Game 4 (despite two more points from Kravtsov, who really is a precocious talent). For the St. Petersburg side, as with Loko, balance is the main thing when it comes to scoring; no player has more than four goals in their ten playoff games, but 17 guys have scored at least once!
SKA-1946 also have an excellent goalie tandem, which served them well in the semifinal. Konstantin Volkov stopped 52 of 54 shots through the first two games, but when he gave up five goals on 19 shots in Game 3, coach Mikhail Milekhin opted for a change. In came Nikita Lysenkov, and he saved 36 of 28 in the series-clincher.
So the Kharlamov Cup Final of 2017-18 will feature two teams with excellent depth amongst both skaters and goalies, which makes it a bit hard to predict! My impression is that Loko are ever-so-slightly the better team, but not by enough to bet large on them by any means. While the first three rounds of the playoffs were all best-of-five, the Final will be best-of-seven, and it gets underway with Game 1 in Yaroslavl this coming Saturday. And just a reminder here that the games will stream at the MHL’s YouTube channel and at the league website, so do check it out!
One last quick note: the championship series in the NMHL, Russia’s second-tier men’s junior league, starts on Thursday. Dizelist Penza will take on Batyr Neftekamsk in the best-of-five Final. Dizelist were beaten finalists last season, but 2016-17 champions Gornyak Uchaly subsequently opted to move their operation to the VHL, becoming the farm team for Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg. Loko-Yunior Yaroslavl and Krasnoyarskie Rysi (Krasnoyarsk) will play the two-game, total-goals, series for third place in the NMHL.
Thank you for reading!