Finals Week in 2019! (Updated)
The KHL’s 2019 Gagarin Cup Final is set! The trophy will get a first-time name on it this season one way or the other, as CSKA Moscow get set to take on Avangard Omsk Oblast. And there will be a full preview of that series here in a couple of days. But for now, it is time to check in on the playoff doings in a number of other Russian men’s leagues, junior and senior — Read on, for a look at the approaching championships in the VHL, PVHL, MHL, and NMHL!
We will start in the VHL, Russia’s second-tier men’s professional league, with the quest for the Petrov Cup (formerly the Bratina Cup; it was re-named for the 2017-18 season). In the early going in the VHL post-season, it was Sokol Krasnoyarsk who grabbed the headlines. Coming in as the 12th seed, Sokol stunned number five team Lada Togliatti three games to one in the opening round, and there was more; due to Krasnoyarsk hosting the Winter Universiade at that time, all four games of the series were played in Togliatti. Getting past Lada under those circumstances was an impressive accomplishment, especially given that Sokol had previously won just one playoff series in seven seasons in the VHL.
But with all due respect to the Krasnoyarsk side, it is Kazakhstan-based Saryarka Karaganda who have been the big story of the quest for the 2018-19 Petrov Cup. Saryarka came into the playoffs ranked tenth, and though their three-game sweep of seventh-seeded Ugra Khanty-Mansiysk in the first round provoked only mild eyebrow-raising (the two teams were only three points apart in the regular-season standings), their seven-game victory over second-ranked Neftyanik Almetyevsk in the quarterfinal definitely got the attention. And Saryarka followed that up with a stunning performance in the semifinal against regular-season champions SKA-Neva St. Petersburg. Not only did the Kazakh club sweep SKA-Neva, but they did not give up a goal to the St. Petersburg powerhouse until the third period of Game 3 (SKA-Neva would end up scoring only three times in the series).
How have Saryarka done it? Well, they have had a little bit of everything going on. Of the five players who have broken ten points in these VHL playoffs, four play for Saryarka, with Airat Ziyazov (14 gp, 7-6-13) and Alexander Remov (12 gp, 2-11-13) leading the way. Saryarka also have the post-season’s top-scoring defenceman, in Leonid Metalnikov (14 gp, 3-6-9). And in net is Eduard Reizvikh, who has posted a 94.5 sv% in 13 games in the playoffs after leading all netminders in the regular season with 95.2 in 24 games. The 28-year-old, a longtime depth goalie in Avangard Omsk’s system, has had a few cups of coffee in the KHL but has done his best work at the VHL level (he has spent time with Saryarka, Neftyanik Almetyevsk, Yermak Angarsk, and now-defunct Kuban Krasnodar).
The truth is that Saryarka’s modest tenth-place regular-season finish may well be masking a very good team. They struggled badly through the first part of the season, and a first-ever playoff non-appearance looked very possible. But a coaching change early on turned things around; Kari Heikkilä departed in October, and Leonīds Tambijevs was hired a month later (perhaps not coincidentally, Saryarka signed Reizvikh out of free agency at the same time they hired Tambijevs). Tambijevs was an inspired if obvious choice as bench boss; he coached Dynamo St. Petersburg to the Petrov Cup last season, and his departure from the defending champions early in this campaign came as something as a surprise. In any case, Saryarka hauled themselves up to tenth before embarking on this tremendous playoff run, and are now staring a second championship in the eye (they won what was then the Bratina Cup in 2013-14). We must also wonder how long it will be until KHL teams start calling Tambijevs’ number (Reizvikh’s too, for that matter).
Saryarka’s opponent for the Petrov Cup Final will be Siberia’s Rubin Tyumen. Coming in as the fourth seed, Rubin dispatched HK Ryazan in three straight to open the post-season, then beat Zvezda Moscow 4-2 in the quarterfinal. The semifinal brought Rubin up against third-seeded Toros Neftekamsk, and it was Toros who won the first two games. But the team from Tyumen rallied at home, winning Games 3 and 4 in overtime before closing outing the series with two more victories. Rubin have received strong netminding from 23-year-old former Traktor Chelyabinsk youth goalie Yegor Nazarov (15gp, 94.6 sv%), and have deployed a deep and balanced attack that has seen 17 different players record at least one goal in these playoffs. Their top scorer so far is forward Ilya Karlin (15 gp, 3-6-9), but keep an eye on defencemen Stanislav Tunkhuzin and Maxim Veryovkin, who have combined for 11 points and seven goals in the post-season, with five of those goals being game-winners.
The 2018-19 final will be a re-match of the 2013-14 edition, won in six games by Saryarka; 2013-14 is also the most recent appearance at the ultimate stage of the playoffs for either team, and is the only previous post-season meeting between the two. It will be Saryarka’s third trip to the final (they have a series record of 1-1 there so far), and Rubin’s fourth; the team from Tyumen has a 1-2 record in their finals, having won the championship in 2010-11.
In Russia’s third-tier PVHL meanwhile, the final pairing for the Federations Cup is set: 2016-17 champions HK Rostov will meet Mordoviya Saransk, title-winners at this level in 2012-13. Rostov have the playoffs’ best goalie tandem in Alexander Zubarev (4 gp, 96.0 sv%) and Maxim Kukurudza (4 gp, 92.6 sv%), while Mordoviya will counter with the top three scorers in the post-season: Yevgeny Filin (10 gp, 5-6-11), Yevgeny Kolychev (10 gp, 3-7-10), and Dmitry Sarazov (9 gp, 2-8-10). Defending champions HK Tambov, incidentally, were not involved this season, having moved on up to try their luck in the VHL (they missed the playoffs there, but were decently competitive for a first-year team).
The finalists for the Kharlamov Cup, championship trophy of Russia’s major junior MHL, have also been determined: Avto Yekaterinburg will take on defending champions Loko Yaroslavl. Avto, junior squad of the KHL’s Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg, placed second in the MHL’s East Conference, before overcoming Snezhnye Barsy Astana (3-1) and Tolpar Ufa (3-1) in the first two rounds of the playoffs. In the semi-final, they faced last year’s runners-up SKA-1946 St. Petersburg (the MHL “crosses over” its conferences at the semifinal stage), and defeated them 3-2 in a series where four of the games were decided by a single goal, two of those in overtime. As for Loko, whose KHL parent club is Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, they came third in the West Conference, and claimed Russkie Vityazi Chekhov (3-1) and Dynamo St. Petersburg (3-0) as their first two playoff victims. The semifinal put them up against the East’s regular-season champions, Mamonty Yugry Khanty-Mansiysk, but Loko prevailed by three games to one. There is quite a contrast between the two finalists in terms of the histories; Loko are bidding for a third Kharlamov Cup in four seasons, while Avto had not been beyond the second round of the playoffs prior to this season.
If we had to pick just one player to watch in this series, it would be Avto’s #71, forward Maxim Rasseikin. An MHL over-ager (he will turn 21 at the end of this month), Rasseikin played 44 games in the KHL regular season with Avtomobilist this season, scoring 3-5-8 in 8:27 per game. After five playoff matches as a bit-part player for Avtomobilist, he was sent back to the MHL, where he has been tearing things up; Rasseikin’s line of 8-5-13 in nine games in the junior playoffs leads everybody in points and goals (he has three more goals in the post-season than anybody else, despite missing games to play in the KHL). In the semi-final against SKA-1946, he scored the winning goal in all three of Avto’s victories, with two of those coming overtime. No reason to think that he will not be a significant player in the KHL, and soon.
It is no surprise, given the nature of their parent team, that Loko’s strength starts from the back. They have two spectacular goalies in Vladislav Ogoryak (6 gp, 96.7 sv% in these playoffs) and former U18 national-teamer Daniil Isayev (4 gp, 94.7 sv%); I expect Isayev, who made his KHL debut this season and excelled (5 gp, 95.3 sv%) to get most of the work, but Ogoryak is one to watch for sure. Lokomotiv also have an intriguing talent up fron, in 17-year-old Ilya Nikolayev. He scored 25 points in 41 games in his rookie MHL campaign this season, and has a very impressive line of 5-3-8 in six games in the playoffs.
I would think, based on their recent experience, that Loko will have the advantage, but Avto’s Rasseikin may be in the category of “too good for this league” and could serve as the great equalizer.
Below the MHL we have the NMHL, which is Russia’s second-tier men’s junior league. That circuit’s Regions Cup was won last season by Dizelist Penza, junior club of the VHL’s Dizel Penza; Dizelist will be back to defend their title in 2018-19. Their final opponent will be HK Rossosh, champions in 2014-15.
And one final bit of finals-related news, although this one is of a season already finished. PSK Sakhalin from Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, are the 2018-19 champions of the Asia League, the Far-Eastern circuit that has also includes teams in Japan and South Korea. PSK, the league’s lone Russian representative, had come close before, losing at the last stage in 2016 and 2017. In 2019, it finally all came together; the team from the island of Sakhalin defeated South Korea’s Anyang Halla in the semifinal, before downing Japanese team Nippon Paper Cranes three games to zero in the final. Congratulations to PSK Sakhalin!
Here then are the start dates for those four upcoming finals series, if known, plus some YouTube links for livestreams (I will update those links if new info becomes available):
- VHL (Rubin Tyumen vs. Saryarka Karaganda): April 16th, YouTube.
- PVHL (HK Rostov vs. Mordoviya Saransk): April 13th.
- MHL (Avto Yekaterinburg vs. Loko Yaroslavl): April 12th, YouTube.
- NMHL (HK Rossosh vs. Dizelist Penza): April 13th.
Next up here, we will take look at the just-concluded group stage of the Women’s World Championship in Finland, and on Thursday will arrive our 2018-19 Gagarin Cup Final preview. As soon as the Women’s Worlds are done, we’ll re-cap that tournament and preview the Women’s Hockey League’s playoff final. Thank you for reading!