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Tuesday, 10 April 2012

And Then There Were Two

With the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs starting tomorrow, there is another league that is close to crowning its champion. The Gagarin Cup Final starts on April 13, and there were a number of excellent teams vying for the right to hoist the KHL's championship trophy. With no Jagr and no Yashin pushing their teams, there would be a chance to see new heroes emerge from the Russian league. Like the NHL playoffs, sixteen teams would start the playoffs, but only two would advance to the final. Let's find out who is the best of the best in the KHL this season.

I'll start by listing the teams that didn't make the cut for the playoffs this year. There is no order to these teams, but these are the handful of KHL franchises that missed out on winning the Gagarin Cup this season: Sibir Novosibirsk, Metallurg Novokuznetsk, Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk, and Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg from the Eastern Conference, and Vityaz Chekhov, Lev Poprad, and Spartak Moscow from the Western Conference. Lokomotiv Yaroslavl did not participate in this season at all after the tragedy they suffered at the start of the season.

WESTERN CONFERENCE QUARTERFINALS

We'll start with the top-seeded SKA St. Petersburg, Alexei Yashin's former squad, who met the eighth-seeded CSKA Moscow in the opening round. SKA showed why they were the top-seed in the Western Conference by crushing CSKA 4-1 and 7-1 in the opening games in St. Petersburg to jump out to a 2-0 series lead. CSKA made good on their return to home ice by winning 3-2 in overtime, but SKA took Game Four in overtime by a 2-1 score for a 3-1 series lead. SKA closed out the series in Game Five with authority with a 5-0 victory to end CSKA's run. SKA St. Petersburg advances to the second round with a 4-1 series victory.

Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod earned the second seed in the Western Conference, and they would face seventh-seeded Dinamo Riga. Torpedo opened the series by showing why they earned the second seed as they downed Riga on home ice by a 7-3 score. Riga responded by winning Game Two by a 2-1 score in overtime to head home with a split. Riga would take a 2-1 series lead with a 4-3 overtime victory, but Torpedo would even the series with a 4-1 win in Game Four. Torpedo would push Riga to the brink with a 4-3 victory in Game Five, but Riga would respond in their home rink with a 3-1 victory to push this series to a seventh game. Much like SKA St. Petersburg, Torpedo pitched a shutout to claim the series victory as they downed Riga 2-0 in the seventh game. Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod advances to Round Two with a 4-3 series victory.

Third-seeded Dynamo Moscow met sixth-seeded Dinamo Minsk in their opening round series. This series was all Moscow as they won Game One in overtime by a 2-1 score, Game Two by a 2-0 margin, Game Three by a 4-2 score, and Game Four by a 3-1 score. Dynamo Moscow advances to the second round with a 4-0 series sweep.

Fourth-seeded Atlant Moscow Oblast met fifth-seeded Severstal Cherepovets in their opening round series. Atlant took the first two games on home ice by scores of 1-0 and 3-1, but the shift back to Cherepovets saw Severstal rally to tie the series as they took both games on their home ice by scores of 2-1 in overtime and 4-0. Atlant returned home and kept the trend going as they recorded a 3-1 win at home to push Severstal to the brink of elimination. Game Six in Cherepovets saw the trend broken as Atlant closed out the series with a 2-1 win on the road. Atlant Moscow Oblast moves on to the second round.

All four of the top seeds in the Western Conference advanced, so it appeared that there would be a number of great games in the second round of the Western Conference series.

EASTERN CONFERENCE QUARTERFINALS

Traktor Chelyabinsk earned the top seed in the Eastern Conference, and they matched up against Yugra Khanty-Mansiysk in the first round. Traktor jumped out to the early series lead with a 3-1 victory in Game One, but Yugra responded in Game Two by posting a 5-2 victory on the road. With the series shifting back to Khanty-Mansiysk, the series started to look more like a "next goal wins" series. Traktor took both games on the road by scores of 7-6 and 6-3 to push their lead in the series to 3-1. In quite the opposite fashion, Traktor closed out the series at home in Game Five with a defensive 1-0 victory. Traktor advances to the second round in the East.

Jaromir Jagr's former team, Avangard Omsk Oblast, earned the second seed in the East, and they met Amur Khabarovsk to determine who would move on. Avangard showed why they were one of the top teams in the KHL this season with a dominating victory over Amur. Scores of 4-2, 4-3, 4-2, and 3-1 earned Avangard the series sweep. Avangard moves on to the second round with little trouble.

The always-powerful Metallurg Magnitogorsk earned the third seed in the Eastern Conference, and they earned a date with Kazakhstan-based Barys Astana. Mettalurg grabbed the early series lead with a 3-2 victory in Game One, but Barys responded by taking Game Two after a 4-1 win. Barys returned home with confidence and showed how dangerous they can be despite being seeded lower. A 3-2 win in Game Three coupled with a 4-1 win in Game Four put Mettalurg on the brink of elimination as Barys showed impressive mettle in grabbing a commanding lead. Mettalurg returned home needing a win, and they used extra time to earn a 4-3 overtime win. Game Six in Astana also saw Mettalurg pull out a 4-3 overtime win, evening the series at 3-3 with the final game of the series in Mettalurg. Like the two previous games, this one went to overtime, and, when the dust settled, Mettalurg had won the game by a 2-1 score. The third-seeded Metallurg Magnitogorsk rallied from a 3-1 series deficit to advance to second round of the KHL playoffs.

Ak Bars Kazan, a regular in KHL playoff action, earned the fourth seed and a date with the fifth-seeded Salavat Yulaev Ufa, Alexander Radulov's Russian team. Ak Bars became the first home team to lose Game One in this year's playoffs as Salavat Yulaev scored a 3-0 victory. Ak Bars would rally in Game Two with a 3-2 overtime victory to split the series as the teams headed to Ufa for the next two games. Ak Bars rolled with the momentum of their Game Two win by taking Games Three and Four by scores of 4-3 in overtime and 3-0. Salavat Yulaev needed a road win in Game Five, and they won their second game in Kazan by a 2-1 score. Ak Bars closed the series in Game Six in Ufa, however, as they downed Salavat Yulaev by a 3-2 score. Ak Bars Kazan advances to the second round of the playoffs with a 4-2 series victory.

Like the Western Conference, the Eastern Conference saw all four top seeds advance in the playoffs, so the best teams in the KHL would play in Round Two in both conferences.

WESTERN CONFERENCE SEMI-FINALS

Top-seeded SKA St. Petersburg met with fourth-seeded Atlant Moscow Oblast in the semi-final. SKA showed their goal-scoring prowess in the opening round against CSKA Moscow, and they continued the goal-scoring onslaught against Atlant. Games One and Two were won decisively by SKA by scores of 4-0 and 7-1 to allow SKA to jump out to the 2-0 series lead. Atlant closed the series deficit with a 2-1 overtime victory in Game Three, but SKA put Atlant on the brink of elimination with a 5-1 victory in Game Four. Atlant kept their season alive by taking a 3-1 victory on the road to close the gap in the series to 3-2, but SKA closed out the series with a 4-0 victory in Game Six. SKA advances to the Western Conference Final with a 4-2 series victory.

Second-seeded Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod drew third-seeded Dynamo Moscow in their semi-final match-up. Torpedo needed all seven games to advance past Dinamo Riga while Moscow only needed four games to advance past Dinamo Minsk. Would the difference in games played be a factor? Moscow jumped out to the early series lead with a 1-0 victory on the road. Torpedo responded in Game Two with a 3-2 overtime victory in a game that saw Moscow outplay Torpedo for stretches at a time. Game Three in Moscow saw the same storyline continue as Moscow poured on the pressure, but Torpedo emerged the victor with a 4-3 overtime victory. Moscow evened the series at 2-2 with a 3-2 victory in Game Four to make this series a best-of-three. With Moscow being the more aggressive team through the first four games, you had to think that the series would turn in their favor. Game Five saw Moscow grab a 4-2 win, and Game Six in Moscow saw the home team close out the series with a 3-2 win. In the first upset of the KHL playoffs, Dynamo Moscow advances to the Westrn Conference Final.

EASTERN CONFERENCE SEMI-FINALS

Top-seeded Traktor Chelyabinsk ran into fourth-seeded Ak Bars Kazan in the semi-final. Traktor used home-ice advantage to take both games at home by scores of 3-1 and 2-1 to jump out to a 2-0 series lead. Ak Bars used the return to Kazan for Game Three to squeak out a 2-1 overtime win, but Traktor took a stranglehold on the series with their 3-2 Game Four victory. Ak Bars squeaked out another 2-1 overtime win in Chelyabinsk in Game Five, but Ak Bars dropped Game Six by a 4-1 score to end their playoff run. As a note, it's hard to win in the playoffs if you don't win at home, and Ak Bars was 2-4 at home in Kazan in their six home playoff games this year. That home record only spells disaster for any team. Traktor Chelyabinsk advances to the Eastern Conference Final with their 4-2 series victory.

Second-seeded Avangard Omsk Oblast sqaured off with third-seeded Metallurg Magnitogorsk in what appeared to be the best match-up of the second round on paper. Both teams engaged in a fierce battles throughout Game One before Mettalurg scored in overtime for the 1-0 victory. Avangard responded in Game Two to even the series with a 5-2 victory as the series shifted back to Magnitogorsk for the next two games. Avangard continued their strong play as they took Game Three by a 3-1 score, and followed that up by downing Mettalurg by a 5-3 score for a 3-1 series lead. The two teams met for Game Five in Omsk, and this game also went to overtime. Avangard, though, wouldn't be denied as they scored the final goal in this game, and eliminated Metallurg Magnitogorsk in five games. Avangard Omsk Oblast moves on to play in the Eastern Conference Final.

WESTERN CONFERENCE FINAL

Top-seeded SKA St. Petersburg would meet third-seeded Dynamo Moscow in this series. SKA has been dominant in terms of their scoring prowess while Moscow has been very good defensively in their two series. Game One saw SKA jump out to a 3-0 lead midway through the second period before Moscow came alive. Down 4-2 with 12:29 to play, Moscow saw Densi Mosalev score his first two goals of the playoffs in 9:34 to push the opening game into overtime. 10:09 into overtime, Mosalev finished off the natural hat trick as Moscow took Game One by a 5-4 overtime score. Moscow once again dominated the play against their opponents as they threw 50 shots at SKA's Jakub Stepanek, and they jumped out to the 1-0 series lead with their win.

Game Two in St. Petersburg was a much more defensive-oriented game. The opening goal wasn't scored until midway through the second period when Moscow Jakub Klepis scored his fourth goal of the playoffs. St. Petersburg tied the game 4:40 into the third period when Maxim Rybin scored his second of the playoffs. But with just 2:13 remaining in the game, Moscow scored again. Marek Kvapil scored his sixth goal of the playoffs from Dmitry Pestunov, and Alexander Yeryomenko held the fort the rest of the way to give Moscow the 2-1 victory. Moscow would return home with a 2-0 series lead over the best team in the Western Conference.

It appeared that the third game showed SKA in a different light as they came out on fire. SKA launched 15 shots in the first period as Moscow's Alexander Yeryomenko compared to Moscow's three shots against SKA, but the score after twenty minutes was 0-0. SKA did break the goose egg midway through the second period, however, as Vladimir Tarasenko notched his tenth goal of the playoffs at the 10:26 mark. 5:11 later, the score was all knotted up again as Moscow's Dmitry Vishnevsky scored his first goal of the playoffs past Jakub Stepanek. With the scored tied 1-1 entering the final frame, one team put themselves in front very nicely midway through the third period. Mikhail Anisin scored his tenth of the playoff for Moscow 12:46 into the period, and Konstantin Gorovikov scored his fourth goal on the powerplay just 2:06 after the Anisin goal. Moscow held the 3-1 score through the final buzzer as they took a commanding 3-0 lead in the series against St. Petersburg.

Things were looking very grim for SKA as the fourth game opened. Moscow jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the first period as Denis Mosalev scored his fourth, Mikhail Anisin scored his eleventh on the powerplay, and Leo Komarov scored his second goal while shorthanded. Komarov's goal sent SKA goaltender Jakub Stepanek to the showers as Ilya Ezhov took to the blue paint as SKA was needing a spark. While there wouldn't be any more goals scored before the period ended, there were more goals in the second period. Konstantin Gorovikov scored his fifth goal at the 3:46 mark, and Mikhail Anisin added his 12th and 13th goals of the playoffs at the 6:03 and 13:33 marks, respectively, to give Moscow a 6-0 lead. With their season virtually over, SKA was still playing for pride as they looked to break Yeryomenko's shutout. Dmitry Kalinin's powerplay goal at the 19:40 mark of the second was his fifth of the season, and SKA had broken the shutout. The third period would be played with no goals, and Moscow closed out the series sweep with a dominating 6-1 victory. With the series sweep and upset of SKA St. Petersburg, Dynamo Moscow would advance to the Gagarin Cup Final.

Perhaps the best display of great team defence, Moscow didn't allow a goal to any of SKA's former NHL players in Maxim Afinogenov, Evgeny Artyukhin, Mattias Weinhandl, Petr Prucha, or Vitaly Vishnevsky. That is pretty amazing considering the talent that those five players have. Dynamo Moscow has zero former NHL players on its roster, so this victory proves that the better team wins despite the talent on paper.

EASTERN CONFERENCE FINAL

Top-seeded Traktor Chelyabinsk would meet second-seeded Avangard Omsk Oblast in a series featuring the top two teams in the Eastern Conference. Traktor had only dropped three games in advancing to the final while Avangard had only lost one game. Both teams had shown solid goal-scoring while maintaining their defensive poise, so this series looked like it would be good as we got underway.

Game One saw Avangard get off to a good start. Just 3:59 in, Alexander Perezhogin scored his third goal of the playoffs to put Avagard ahead. It appeared that this game was morphing into a defensive battle, but Traktor drew even at 10:03 of the second period when Konstantin Panov scored his fourth goal of the season. 3:06 later, Traktor took the lead as Evgeni Katichev caught Avangard off-guard on a powerplay for his first goal of the playoffs while shorthanded. The score would remain 2-1 in favor of Traktor until the 19:28 mark of the third period when Stanislav Chistov scored his sixth goal of the playoffs into an empty net. Traktor scored the first victory in the series with their 3-1 win on home ice.

Game Two saw Avangard score early once again. Dmitry Syomin scored his second goal of the playoffs just 2:29 into the game, and Avangard was up early by a 1-0 score. Midway through the period, Traktor scored a powerplay goal to tie the game. Evgeny Kuznetsov's sixth goal of the playoffs came at 9:23, and the two teams were back at even terms once again. Kuznetsov score his seventh goal, again on the powerplay, with 4:51 remaining in the second period as the two teams were taking part in a defensive struggle. Traktor took the 2-1 lead into the intermission. The lead was short-lived in the third period as Avangard's Alexander Perezhogin scored his fourth goal of the playoffs just 36 seconds into the period. It was all defensive hockey after that goal as both teams went into lock-down mode. Regulation time hit zeroes, and we were still tied at 2-2, so it was off to overtime. In fact, it took a second overtime period to produce a winner. Nikita Pivtsakin's third goal of the playoffs at 6:01 of double overtime gave Avangard the 3-2 win, and that knotted the series up at 1-1 with the series moving to Omsk for the next two games.

Line matching always favors the team that wants to play a defensive style, and there was no denying that Avangard was playing to win by keeping the puck from finding its way behind Karri Ramo. Traktor has enough talent to match Avangard, but the line matching will produce bad match-ups every once in a while. No goals were scored through the first period, but Avangard held the edge in shots with a 13-7 lead. 1:51 into the second period, one of those shots got past Traktor's Michael Garnett as Sergei Kalinin scored his second goal of the playoffs to put Avangard up 1-0. There were no additional goals scored in the second period, but Avangard carried the play as they outshot Traktor 2-=6 in this period. In the third period, it was completely stifling from Traktor's standpoint as they had no quality chances with Avangard defending their zone with all they had. Six more shots was all Traktor could muster, and Avangard was content with their lone goal as they took Game Three by a 1-0 score after outshooting Traktor 39-19 in this game.

Game Four saw a few more goals scored than the previous game. Traktor needed to get back on track or they would find themselves in a precarious position being down 3-1 in the series. Like the previous three games, however, it was Avangard that jumped out to the early lead when Yegor Averin scored his second goal of the playoffs past Michael Garnett at the 13:16 mark. The game pushed into the second period where Avangard doubled their lead at 9:37 as Alexei Kalyuzhny scored his first goal of the playoffs. The 2-0 lead for Avangard would stand until 19:09 of the third period when Traktor's Anton Glinkin scored his first goal of the playoffs to make things interesting. Garnett went to the bench and Traktor continued to press, but Avangard's Roman Cervenka found the open net with his shot for his tenth goal of the playoffs. Cervenka's goal came with 15 seconds remaining to ice the game, and, like the score in the game, Avangard had a 3-1 lead in the series.

While great defence can be a major factor in a victory, sometimes a goaltender will simply steal a game where his team was outclassed. Traktor had to press in this game with desperation as their backs were against the wall, and they were looking to get back on track at home. It was the same story as the previous four games, though, as Avangard's Anton Belov found the back of the net behind Michael Garnett for his first of the playoffs at 14:10 of the first period. There weren't many chances in the first period as Avangard outshot Traktor 6-4, so it appeared that it might be a defensive game in which mistakes could be one team's downfall. The second period showed the desperation that Traktor needed to show earlier in the series as they roared back to outshoot Avangard 13-5. The only problem was that Karri Ramo stoned Traktor at every turn. The third period saw Traktor throw another pile of rubber at Ramo as they outshot Avangard 13-3, but Ramo made a number of ridiculous saves to stonewall Traktor once again. Ramo stopped all 30 shots he faced from Traktor, and closed out the series by shutting out Traktor by a 1-0 score. Avangard Omsk Oblast advances to the Gagarin Cup Final with their 4-1 series win over Traktor Chelyabinsk.

If there was any doubt who was the biggest factor in this series, Karri Ramo showed he has incredible talent. He allowed five goals in five games with an empty-netter being scored, recorded two shutouts, and made some outstanding saves. If defence wins championships, your goaltender is your main weapon in that argument, and Karri Ramo is cementing his status as the potential playoff MVP.

GAGARIN CUP FINAL

The Eastern Conference will be represented by Avangard Omsk Oblast. The Western Conference will be represented by Dynamo Moscow. How do these two teams stack up against one another?

Moscow Dynamo finished third in the Western Conference with 105 points while Avangard Omsk Oblast finished second in the Eastern Conference with 93 points. In their two head-to-head match-ups this season, Moscow Dynamo won 1-0 in a shootout on October 8 while Avangard Omsk Oblast took the second game by a 2-1 shootout score in Moscow. Seems pretty even through the regular season, right?

It's even worse in the playoffs as both teams have virtually identical stats. Avangard has 40 goals-for while Moscow has 43 goals-for. Avangard has 23 goals-against while Moscow has 24 goals-against. Avangard's Karri Ramo has a 1.45 GAA and .944 save percentage while Moscow's Alexander Yeryomenko has a 1.64 GAA and a .940 save percentage. Moscow's Mikhail Anisin has 13 goals to lead his team while Avangard's Roman Cervenka has ten goals to lead his team. On the other hand, Cervenka leads the playoffs with 18 points while Anisin is second in playoff scoring with 16 points. Both teams swept their first-round opponents, and neither team lost in regulation in the semi-finals. Moscow is 12-0-2 thus far in these playoffs while Avangard is 12-1-1.

With the two teams as evenly matched as they seem, it seems difficult to pick a winner just based on numbers alone. I'm not going to predict who will win because I seem to jinx any team that does, but these two teams are about as evenly matched based on their performances as one can find. The Gagarin Cup Final starts on Friday, and will continue on Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday through the initial four games.

If anything, perhaps we should expect the one thing that is certain: the winner of the 2012 KHL Gagarin Cup Playoffs will have earned the right to hoist the trophy after this series. Good luck to both teams!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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