Sunday, 27 February 2011

Over In That Other League...

While we approach and anticipate the NHL Trade Deadline in North America tomorrow, there's a big event going on in the NHL's rival league as the KHL began the Gagarin Cup Playoffs on Wednesday. Sixteen teams qualified for the playoffs, and there are some definite favorites that could go all the way to Gagarin Cup final, so we'll break down this look at the KHL's "second season". There have definitely been a couple of surprises so far in the playoffs, so let's break down each series and see who the favorites are based upon the already-decided games.

We'll start with the Western Conference series today, and tomorrow will have the Eastern Conference series showcased.

(1) Lokomotiv Yaroslavl vs. (8) Dinamo Minsk

Lokomotiv saw three former NHL stars pace them to a victory as Josef Stumpel had three asissts, Pavol Demitra had a pair of assists, and Josef Vasicek had a goal and two assists. Jeff Platt pulled Dinamo Minsk to within a goal late in the second period as Lokomotiv led by a 5-4 score, but two third-period goals by Lokomotiv sealed the deal as they won Game One on Wednesday by a 7-4 score.

Game Two was played on February 24, and there was definitely a different feeling about this one. Jeff Platt had himself a great game for Dinamo Minsk as he chipped in a goal and two assists. Had it not been for a Pavol Demitra goal on a penalty shot with less than three minutes to play in the game, Robert Esche would have recorded the shutout. However, Dinamo Minsk tied the series at 1-1 with a 4-1 victory.

Game Three was played last night, and Dinamo Minsk continued to roll. Four different scorers put pucks past Dimitrij Kotschnew, including Jeff Platt's third goal of the series. Robert Esche stopped 37 of 38 shots sent his way, and Dinamo Minsk took the 2-1 series lead on the strength of a second 4-1 victory.

Game Four was already completed today, and the series is now even at two games apiece. Alexander Kalyanin had two goals to give him four in the series, and Andrei Kiryuhin's first of the series was the game-winner as Lokomotiv drew even with a 4-2 victory.

Game Five is scheduled for Tuesday night, and Game Six is set for Thursday, March 3. If a seventh game is necessary in this series, that will most likely be played on Friday, March 4.

I'm going to have to go out on a limb here and say that I like Lokomotiv's offence, but Dinamo Minsk does have solid goaltending with Robert Esche between the pipes. Defence, as you know, wins in the playoffs, so I'm calling an upset here as choosing Dinamo Minsk to advance!

(2) Dynamo Moscow vs. (7) Dinamo Riga

Wednesday night saw this series open in thrilling fashion. Both teams battled hard defensively, not allowing for many opportunities to be had. Mark Hartigan opened the scoring midway through the second period for Riga. With less than five minutes to play, Leo Komarov even the game with his unassisted goal. With the way that this game had been played over the previous 56 minutes, you had to know that overtime was coming. However, just 2:43 into overtime, Oskars Cibulskis wired a shot past Michael Garnett to give Riga the 2-1 overtime victory and the early 1-0 series lead.

Game Two on Thursday was the polar opposite of the opening game in this series. Scoring came fast and furious as the two teams combined for twelve goals! Former NHL bruiser Chris Simon had a pair of goals for Dynamo Moscow as Moscow hung eight goals on the Riga goaltending tandem of Mikael Tellqvist and Chris Holt. Dynamo Moscow ties the series at 1-1 with an 8-4 victory.

Saturday saw Game Three played in Moscow. Riga's Leo Komarov scored his third goal of the series in as many game, and forward Brock Trotter put three helpers on the board for Riga. Mikael Tellqvist looked like himself again as he only allowed one goal in this one as Riga took Game Three by a 5-1 score to go up 2-1 in the series.

Much like the series above this one, the results for Sunday's game have already been posted. Game Four was another nail-biter as this game needed extra time as well. Dmitry Pestunov scored 7:51 into the first period for Moscow. Riga responded 12:18 into the second period as Girt Ankipans notched his first goal of the playoffs. The third period was played scoreless, so we were off to the second overtime game of this series. It took nearly a full period, but Riga's Krisjanis Redlihs scored a powerplay goal in overtime after Moscow's Alexei Kudashov was sent off for roughing. Sandis Ozolinsh picked up his fourth assist of the series on the game-winner, and Riga found themselves up 3-1 in the series after the win on Sunday.

Game Five will be played on Tuesday, March 1. If necessary, Game Six appears to be scheduled for Thursday while I would assume Game Seven, if necessary, would happen on Friday to wrap up this series.

I have to go with Riga in this one. Mikael Tellqvist, aside from the Game Two blowout, has only given up three goals in the other three games, and the Riga defence has really been stingy in terms of scoring chances. Overall, Riga has been the better team thus far, and they deserve to move on.

(3) SKA Saint Petersburg vs. (6) Spartak Moscow

Wednesday night saw this game go down to the wire as well. This game had a number of former NHL players hit the scoresheet, and the game went back-and-forth before a winner was crowned. Evgeny Artyukhin scored for SKA, and it was matched by Spartak's Branko Radivojevic. Anton But and Alexei Yashin put SKA up by two goals, but they were erased by Kirill Knyazev and Radivojevic once again. With no winner after sixty minutes, overtime was needed. 7:31 into the extra frame saw SKA's Mattias Weinhandl score the game-winner to give SKA the 4-3 victory and the 1-0 series lead.

Game Two went Thursday night, and it seemed almost like a replay from the night before. Denis Denisov opened the scoring for SKA on the powerplay, and Maxim Sushinsky made it 2-0 for SKA. Before the end of the first, Oleg Piganovich cut the deficit in half for Spartak as his goal made it 2-1. Petr Cajanek made it 3-1 eight minutes into the second, but Stefan Ruzicka scored shorthanded at 13:46 to close the gap to one goal again as the period closed with SKA up 3-2. 12:53 into the third period saw Spartak complete the comeback as Alexander Yunkov scored his first goal on the powerplay to make it 3-3. There was no winner after sixty minutes, so we were off to overtime for the second straight game. And for the second time in two nights, Mattias Weinhandl ended the game, this time at 6:43 of the overtime period. With their second 4-3 overtime victory, SKA led the series 2-0.

Game Three was much different as SKA's former NHL stars came to play. Mattias Weinhandl scored in the first period for a change, Petr Prucha added his first goal, and Maxim Afinoganov had a pair of goals. Alexei Yashin and Denis Grebeshkov each recorded one assist while Petr Cajanek had two assists. There was no comeback on this night as SKA recorded the 5-2 victory over Spartak to go up 3-0 in the series. Spartak, backstopped by Dominik Hasek, now face elimination if they can't pull off four straight victories over SKA.

Game Four was played today, and there was certainly some energy in the air as SKA could close out the series as home. While Spartak got the first goal from Stefan Ruzicka, Maxim Sushinsky and Petr Prucha put SKA up 2-1 before the end of the first period. Two goals by Kirill Knyazev canceled out Matias Weinhandl's second period marker, and the teams would go into the last twenty minutes tied 3-3. 8:28 into the third period, Petr Prucha would convert a Sergei Brylin pass to put SKA up 4-3, and Prucha's third goal of the series would stand as the winner as SKA would close out this game and series with a 4-3 victory.

No other games are necessary, and there's no needed predictions here, so I'll leave you with this quote from 93 year-old Dominik Hasek after his team was eliminated in four straight games: "I need two or three weeks to decide about my career. I will think about my family. I hope that if I will continue my career, it will be in the KHL. It is the best league in Europe."

Maybe the 45 year-old stopper isn't done just yet.

(4) Atlant Moscow Oblast vs. (5) Severstal Cherepovets

The fourth series to start Wednesday featured Atlant and Severstal. Atlant has three former Vancouver Canucks on their roster, and all of them figured into the scoring in their first game. Kirill Lyamin and Vadim Shipachev scored for Severstal while Igor Musatov and Jan Bulis had goals for Atlant. However, nothing was settled through sixty minutes, so extra time was tacked on for a winner to emerge. It took 13:22, but defenceman Jaroslav Obsut finally gave Atlant the 3-2 overtime win. Obsut also added an assist on Bulis' second-period goal, and former Canuck Fedor Fedorov recorded an assist on Obsut's game-winner. Atlant was out to the early 1-0 series lead.

Severstal and Atlant clashed again on Thursday evening, and there was fire behind the Severstal lads. Severstal jumped out to a 2-0 lead before the game was nine minutes old as Yury Trubachev and Andrei Shefer scored their first goals of the playoffs. Fedor Fedorov closed the gap to 2-1 before the period ended, but the second period was all Severstal. Another goal early in the second period by Josef Straka chased Atlant goaltender Konstantin Barulin as he was replaced by Vitaly Koval in the blue paint, but that change didn't help. Goals by Vadim Shipachev and Sergei Soin made it 5-1 as the second period closed. Atlant got a third period goal from Edward Lewandowski, but Severstal cruised to the 5-2 victory to knot up the series at 1-1 again.

Game Three on Saturday was all about three: three goals in three periods. Ivan Nepryayev scored for Atlant in the first while Severstal got goals in the second and third periods from Evgeny Ketov. Vasily Koshechkin stopped 37 of 38 shots for Severstal in the victory as Severstal skated to the 2-1 victory for the 2-1 series lead.

Game Four on Sunday saw Atlant break out of their scoring funk in a big way. Oleg Petrov recorded a natural hat trick in the first period in three minutes, and Atlant had staked themselves to a 5-0 victory after the first frame! Had it not been for a second period goal by Alexei Tsvetkov on the powerplay, this would have been a whitewashing with a shutout! Instead, Petrov had three, Fedor Fedorov had two, and Atlant skated to a dominant 8-1 victory over Severstal to even the series at 2-2.

Game Five is scheduled for Tuesday evening, and Game Six has been set for Thursday night. If Game Seven is necessary, I'm guessing Friday would see this series wrap up.

As for predictions, this is a tougher series, but it seems as though Atlant has too much firepower to be held down for four games out of seven. While Severstal has done an excellent job in their two wins, Vasily Koshechkin has seen a lot of rubber already in this series, and we've only played four game. I have to think that Atlant will eventually dispose of Severstal, but it doesn't look to be an easy task.

Those are all the games thus far from the Western Conference of the KHL. The Western Conference is made up of eleven teams in two divisions: the Tarasov Division and the Bobrov Division. If you're counting, that's eight of eleven teams making the playoffs, meaning only CSKA, Vityaz Chekhov, and Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod missed the playoffs in the Western Conference.

Tomorrow, we'll look at how the Eastern Conference has been faring on their side of the bracket in the KHL Gagarin Cup Playoffs!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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