2017-18 Gagarin Cup Final Preview (Updated)
A nice video looking back at the first Gagarin Cup Final, in 2008-09. Ak Bars Kazan were the champions on that occasion, and they’re back in the Final for 2017-18.
The opening face-off of the Gagarin Cup Final for this season is just a couple of days away; the puck drops at 5:00 pm Moscow time on Saturday! And the Final, as we have discussed, may not be the won most were anticipating, particularly in terms of the representative from the West Conference. So read on, for some thoughts about what may happen when CSKA Moscow meet Ak Bars Kazan with the championship at stake.
Both these teams are experienced playoff hands, with a combined one missed post-season between them in the KHL era (that was CSKA, back in 2010-11). For Ak Bars, this will be a fourth trip to the Gagarin Cup; the Tatar giants won the first two Gagarin Cups, in 2009 and 2010, but were beaten by SKA St. Petersburg on their most recent appearance in 2015. As for CSKA, the famous old Central Red Army team of Tretyak, Kharlamov, and so many others, they have not secured a championship since 1989 (although we should note that they have won the KHL regular season title three times, which would have counted as a national championship through much of the Soviet era). CSKA do have the most recent Final appearance of these two teams, however, having been beaten by Metallurg Magnitogorsk for the 2015-16 title.
CSKA Moscow in these playoffs are, with one exception, still waiting for somebody to grab the scoring reins and take off; the team has nobody close at all to a point per game in the 2017-18 post-season. That one exception is former Buffalo and Colorado prospect Mikhail Grigorenko, who leads all KHL playoff snipers with nine goals in 16 games (Grigorenko also currently leads the team in post-season points, with 12). It was Grigorenko, you may recall, who scored the “late equalizer plus OT winner” combo that finished off SKA St. Petersburg in the West Final. But what of young superstar Kirill Kaprizov, you ask? Well, Russia’s Olympic hero was a bit off the pace in the first two rounds, possibly due to post-Games fatigue, but has been coming on somewhat since; he’s currently sitting at 2-8-10 in 15 games, with five of his points coming in his last six games (plus, against SKA, he did this). Kaprizov did miss Game 6 against SKA, and the last few days of practice, with a case of the mumps, but it is said that he will be ready for Saturday’s game.
And CSKA’s defence is very strong indeed, holding opponents to just 23 shots per 60 minutes. That number is extra-impressive when we consider that for six of CSKA’s 16 games, they have been facing the KHL’s most powerful scoring team in SKA St. Petersburg. It’s a solid group on the Red Army blueline, including former NHLer Nikita Nesterov and the under-rated Bogdan Kiselevich, but of particular note in these playoffs has been Mat Robinson. Robinson, acquired this past off-season from city rivals Dynamo, leads the team in post-season ice-time (24:15/game), but has been on the ice for all of two even-strength goals against. And he is the only CSKA defenceman who has scored more than once (he’s at 15 gp, 2-0-2). Robinson did miss the last game of the SKA series, and has not practiced in a few days, but is expected to be ready to go for Saturday (see the Kaprizov link).
As for the goaltending, well, CSKA Head Coach Igor Nikitin has a most interesting decision in front of him. Ilya Sorokin began the playoffs in record-setting fashion, stopping 125 of 126 shots, and giving up just a single goal, over his first six games. But he was pulled twice against SKA, and backup Lars Johansson came in and did a truly spectacular job. The 30-year-old Swede made one start against SKA, in addition to those two appearances in relief of Sorokin (both of which, by the way, were at least 35 minutes in length), and did not give up a single goal on 74 shots. That gives him, for the playoffs, a .989 sv% and a rather intriguing 0.30 GAA. So does Nikitin dance with the one what brung him (Sorokin), or go with the suddenly hot hand (Johansson). It will be interesting to see, but it is important that the CSKA bench boss make the right choice.
As for Ak Bars Kazan, they do indeed have a scoring wizard in these playoffs: it has been 11 games since Justin Azevedo failed to record at least a point, and he has a post-season line of 14 gp, 7-14-21. That puts him first in the league in playoff points by four, and he’s nine ahead of anybody else who will be playing in the Final. His seven goals put him tied for third this post-season, where he is joined by team-mate Stanislav Galiyev. And Sweden’s Anton Lander had an excellent season as a playmaker (54 gp, 9-29-38), but has turned his hand to sniping in the playoffs, with five goals already in just 14 games. As for Vladimir A. Tkachyov, expected to be a big part of the Ak Bars attack, he has gone just 3-3-6 in 14 games, but has done a great job defensively; Tkachyov has been on the ice for only one even-strength goal against, and his +9 is tied with Galiyev for the team lead.
And that’s all good, because Ak Bars do have some injury worries up front. Jiří Sekáč, their leading scorer in the regular season (50 gp, 16-26-42), was cruising along nicely with 12 points in 10 playoff games before suffering a broken hand. Reports have been that he is out for the season, although he did suit up for practice the other day, so we shall see (I have a suspicion that having Sekáč at practice was meant as a bit of a red herring for CSKA’s benefit, and he is still officially on the injured list). Intrigue around injuries is nothing new to playoff hockey, in any league. Veteran forward Danis Zaripov, just one short of a full hand’s worth of Gagarin Cup rings in his career, was also bothered by injury early in these playoffs; however, he has played the last eight games and recorded nine points therein, so he should be fine to face CSKA.
Update! The intrigue deepens, as Sekáč is now off the injured list officially. We shall see what we shall see on Saturday, but he if he is back and ready to go, that changes the math for this series.
As for the Ak Bars defence, always a strength under Head Coach (and former USSR national team rearguard) Zinetula Bilyaletdinov, it is, well, once again a strength. Ak Bars blueliners have kept their opponents to 26 shots per 60 minutes, despite five games against Sergei Mozyakin and Metallurg Magnitogorsk. That’s not quite as impressive as CSKA’s performance, but it’s good nonetheless. We should tip our hat especially here to the fine, under-the-radar, playoff performance of Vasily Tokranov. He had 18 points in 49 regular-season games, but already has posted eight in 11 playoff contests, and is +8 to boot. And in goal, Bilyaletdinov faces no dilemma whatsoever; the Ak Bars cage belongs to Emil Garipov, who has played all but a minute of this post-season and put up a very nice sv% of .936.
As for a prediction, well, there are solid reasons to like both these teams. In addition, there is health-related uncertainty about a couple of key players on each side. However, on balance, I think CSKA’s strong defence and goaltending can find a way to shut down Azevedo and Co., or at least slow them enough. Ak Bars, by virtue of finishing first in the East as opposed to CSKA’s second in the West, will have home ice advantage however, so that too must be kept in mind. There are a lot of moving parts in this one, and it should be a fascinating final, but I’ll say CSKA in six and predict an end to that long title drought (unless Sekáč is indeed back — see update above — in which case this series ought to be a lot closer).
Thank you for reading!