In the "league that nobody in North America likes to talk about", the KHL is gearing up to award the Gagarin Cup to one of sixteen teams who qualified for the playoffs. The top-16 teams in the league were ranked according to their standing, and they will play to be come the first Gagarin Cup Champions. Igor Larionov, pictured to the left, is holding the impressive trophy which will be awarded to the last team standing at the end of the KHL Playoffs. First-round games start today, March 1, and are best-of-five series that will conclude, at the latest, by March 8. In fact, some games are already done, and I'll update scores here as well. Who is playing whom? Where did Team A finish? Who are the favorites? All of these will be answered in this preview of the KHL Gagarin Cup Playoffs.
Game One between the top-ranked Salavat team and the 16th-ranked Avangard team was a closely-contested match that saw Salavat win 3-2 in overtime. They lead the series 1-0. Vladimir Antipov, Vladimir Vorobyov, and Andrey Kuteykin scored for Salavat, while Avangard got goals from Dmitriy Vlasenkov and former NHLer Alexandr Svitov. Defenceman Kuteykin scored the overtime winner for Salavat.
Salavat finished the season with an incredible 129 points in 56 games to win the Bobrov Division. Avangard needed help to claim a playoff spot, leaving their fate in other teams' hands. This series, in all honesty, should go to Salavat in no more than four games. Avangard has been reeling since Alexey Cherepanov's death, and the turmoil surrounding the team seemed to have sent them spiraling down the standings.
Game One is scheduled for tomorrow with Ak Bars playing at home.
Kazan was impressive this season, finishing with 122 points to win the Chernyshev Division. Lead by former NHLer Alexey Morozov's 32 goals and 38 assists, Kazan is looking to continue their impressive play in the playoffs. Barys, on the other hand, was lead in scoring by defenceman Kevin Dallman with 56 points. His point total eclpised the Russian domestic hockey league total by a defenceman set by the legendary Vyacheslav Fetisov. While Dallman is a threat, I can't see Kazan losing any of the first three games, and should wrap up this series in a sweep.
Game One was won by Neftekhimik by a 3-2 overtime score, and leads the series 1-0. Neftekhimik's scorers were Igor Yemeleyev with two goals, and Andrey Ivanov with one goal. Replying for Lokomotiv were Alexey Mikhnov and Dmitriy Syemin. Yemeleyev's second goal of the game was the winner for Neftekhimik.
This is a somewhat surprising turn of events, considering Neftekhimik's lack of goal-scoring during the regular season. Lokomotiv picked up 111 points this season, and won the Kharlamov Division by 27 points over Lada Togliatti. However, like any playoff series, statistics mean nothing, so throw the book out the window. Yashin was invisible in Game One for Lokomotiv - nothing new there. I still like Lokomotiv's chances, but the confidence earned by Neftekhimik may be enough to propel them as a winner. I'm calling a major upset: Neftekhimik in five games.
Game One is scheduled for tomorrow with CSKA playing at home.
Lada had a late surge in the standings to move them up to 13th overall. CSKA also moved up in the standings, earning 106 points to win the Tarasov Division. Lada's overall team play improved, but they will need a solid effort and good finishing if they hope to defeat goaltender Konstantin Barulin and CSKA. CSKA has solid depth, boasting former NHLers Oleg Saprykin, Petr Schastlivy, and Alexandr Suglobov. With their depth, CSKA shouldn't have this series go longer than four games.
Game One was won decisively by Atlant by a 3-0 score. Alexey Glukhov, Aleksandr Korolyuk, and Albert Leshev scored for Atlant. Sergey Mozyakin was in on all three goals, recording three assists. Former NHLer Raymond Emeri picked up the shutout with a 29-save performance.
Traktor has a couple of former NHLers in Andrey Nikolishin and Oleg Kvasha, but they are up against the second-best team in terms of point total in the KHL. Atlant recorded 122 points, but could not secure a division title. This series is a mismatch in talent, and Atlant should close this out in three games.
Game One is scheduled for tomorrow with Magnitogorsk playing at home.
Torpedo really clamped down defensively in the second half of the season, and rocketed up the standings. Former NHLers Pavel Brendl and Artem Chubarov have contributed nicely offensively. Metallurg was lead by Jan Marek in scoring this season, but the same problem exists - most of the offence went through Marek. If Torpedo can shut down Marek, Metallurg might be in serious trouble. I'm calling the upset: Torpedo in four games.
Game One went to Moscow on a solid 4-0 victory. The offence was lead by Alexey Kalyuzhny (2G, 1A) and former NHLer Vitaliy Yachmenev (1G, 2A). The fourth goal was scored by Dmitriy Shitikov. Vitaliy Yeremeyev recorded the shutout on a 23-save effort.
Martsel Hossa's line can't be relied upon to do all the scoring for Riga. Hossa played very well this season, but the secondary scoring just isn't there for Riga. Moscow's handling of his line in Game One is a good example of how important secondary scorers are. I'm calling a sweep for Moscow in this series.
Game One is scheduled for tomorrow with Saint Petersberg playing at home.
This series will be close. Seven points separated these two teams, with SKA recording 100 points to Spartak's 93 this season. SKA is lead by scoring threat Maksim Sushinsky up front, and they have one of the KHL's best goalies this season in Robert Esh. SKA had the best team tandem tending the twine in the regular season, and it appears they will ride defence and goaltending in the playoffs. Spartak was lead by former NHLer Branko Radivoevich up front, but they have an extremely balanced attack. Defensively, they don't boast superb goaltending, so there will have to be a team effort on defence, but Spartak should be able to go goal-for-goal with SKA. My predictions is that team defence always beats a good offence, and Spartak will advance in five games.
So there you have it, folks. The KHL playoffs are underway, and the biggest names have yet to make an impact. Jagr was held off the scoresheet for Avangard, and Yashin is up to his old disappearing-in-the-playoffs trick again. Honestly, Atlant looks scary-good, and they are the team I am picking to run the board. Of course, anything can happen, but isn't that why this game is so good?
Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!