By Patrick Conway – Conway’s Russian Hockey
(1) Metallurg Magnitogorsk vs. (5) Barys Astana
Metallurg had a fairly routine time against Kunlun Red Star Beijing in the first round, winning through in five games, but there may be a dark cloud on the horizon. That cloud is the tape wrapped around the left wrist and hand of Mr. Sergei Mozyakin, especially when we note that Mozyakin, who recently set KHL records for goals and points in a season, scored “only” 2-4-6 in Round 1. For now, this is merely something to keep an eye on (there has, unsurprisingly, been no official word on a possible injury), and Metallurg fans can console themselves with the fact that all six of Mozyakin’s Round 1 points came in the last three games, so he appears to be feeling better. Furthermore, the brevity of the series against KRS means that the Magnitogorsk players will have enjoyed a full week of resting up their aches and sprains.
[You may have noticed, by the way, that the video linked above was from the ceremony honouring Mozyakin for 1000 career points, a mark no one else has achieved in Russian domestic hockey. The KHL has a very nice career retrospective video of Mozyakin here!]
And of course, while Mozyakin is the KHL’s best player (ever), coach Ilya Vorobyov’s Metallurg are hardly a one-man band. Danis Zaripov and defenceman Chris Lee both recorded nine points in Round 1, just behind league-leading Brandon Kozun of Lokomotiv, while Jan Kovář added eight of his own. Zaripov, Kovář, and Oskar Osala all provided hat-tricks to the cause against Kunlun Red Star as well. And Metallurg got good service from both their goalies. Veteran Vasily Koshechkin did concede three goals on ten shots in the Game 4 loss, but put up a .927 sv% in three other games, while burgeoning young star Ilya Samsonov was an eye-catching .949 in a game and a half’s worth of action. Koshechkin seems the preferred starter right now, but Samsonov is a wonderful fall-back option, and may be more than that by the end of the playoffs.
Metallurg split the two games against their Round 2 opponents this season, winning 3-1 at home but losing 5-3 in Kazakhstan, and Barys Astana are becoming a more impressive team by the day. They went into Round 1 against a defensively very sound Traktor Chelyabinsk squad without one of their main scoring threats (Brandon Bochenski, whose return date is still unknown), but it hardly seemed to matter. Traktor were overcome in six games, as Nigel Dawes continued his splendid scoring season by finding the net four times. Journeyman forward Konstantin Pushkaryov, who has never scored more than 17 points in a KHL regular season, filled in for Bochenski admirably on the top line, contributing 2-2-4 and scoring the fastest-ever goal from the start of a KHL playoff game (11 seconds). And Kevin Dallman, long one of the best scoring d-men in the KHL, was there with five assists as well.
Perhaps most encouraging for Barys, however, was the play of goalie Henrik Karlsson. The 33-year-old Swede (and former Calgary Flame) played every minute against Traktor, and stopped 171 of 182 shots (.940 sv%, fifth-best among playoff goalies). If he can keep that up, it will give the Kazakh team something it has sorely lacked in previous seasons.
Barys missed the playoffs in 2015-16 for the first time ever, and their current campaign began with disgrace, three straight losses, and a very early coaching change. “New” bench boss Eduard Zankovets, who arrived in early September, deserves tremendous credit for the fact that Barys are now among the last eight KHL teams standing. The problem is that for all Barys’ qualities, Metallurg have an answer. Dawes was the KHL’s second-leading goalscorer this season… behind Mozyakin. Is Dallman a superb scoring defenseman? He is, but not as good as Chris Lee at this point. If Karlsson is seen to be outplaying Koshechkin in net, Metallurg can switch to Samsonov, and so on. This series will be no slam dunk for the Magnitogorsk team, but if they keep their wits about them, Metallurg should advance in five or six games.
(2) Avangard Omsk Oblast vs. (3) Ak Bars Kazan
How similar were these two teams in the regular season? They both finished with overall records of 38-22, and 109 pts (Avangard are the two-seed for winning their division, while Ak Bars finished second to Metallurg in theirs). Even more remarkably, they conceded the same number of goals (127 each). As far as goals scored is concerned, Avangard got the better of it, scoring 156 goals while Ak Bars could only manage… 155. This series might be close, is what I’m saying.
Avangard, under coach Fyodor Kanareikin, got past far-eastern Admiral Vladivostok in Round 1 in six games, and were particularly ruthless at home — they out-scored Admiral 14-4 under Omsk skies. Erstwhile St. Louis Blue Vladimír Sobotka led them in scoring with a line of 3-5-8 in the six games, but Avangard got goals from 14 different players in the series, which is remarkable. Swedish defenseman Erik Gustafsson was not one of the players who scored, but he did come up with five assists. So this is a team, quite clearly, that one cannot sleep on no matter who is on the ice.
One niggling little question for Avangard concerns the goaltending, where Dominik Furch’s sv% of .922 was only about league-average, no better (although no worse either). It may not matter, however, as Furch faced just 140 shots in 400 Round 1 minutes (about 21 per game). Full credit, therefore, to the Omsk defence, and we should note in particular Yunas Anelyov; he not only tied for the team lead with three goals, but was +10 over the six games.
However, and with all due respect to Admiral Vladivostok, Ak Bars Kazan are a different kettle of fish. Round 1 saw the Tatarstan giants came through the Green Derby (about which Arto Palovaara has a nice piece here) in five games, but in no way was it a rout of fierce rivals Salavat Yulaev Ufa. All five games were settled by a single goal, and while only one went to overtime, two others saw the winning tally arrive in the final ten seconds of the third period (both times in Ak Bars’ favour, incidentally). It was a tremendous series, for all its brevity, and any team that comes out on top in such a match-up must be taken seriously.
Four of those first-round games ended 2-1, so it is no surprise that Ak Bars are a little short of big scoring numbers at the moment. Jiří Sekáč and Fyodor Malykhin both scored three goals, while Justin Azevedo led the points parade with a line of 2-4-6. Ak Bars got goals from only six different players, and only one goal total from the defence (that was an important one, however; Atte Ohtamaa’s tally was one of those two last-second winners).
No, as is traditional with Ak Bars and their long-serving head coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov, the strength came from the defence, as they held a powerful Salavat Yulaev forward group to about 23 shots per game. Emil Garipov was preferred to Stanislav Galimov in net, and produced a sv% of .933, which can take a team a long way against that small a number of shots.
Ak Bars also swept the season series against Avangard, winning 1-0 at home and 3-2, in overtime, on the road, but that tells us little as the most recent of those games was in November. In fact, picking this series approaches impossibility. Ak Bars have the hotter goalie at the moment, while Avangard have home ice advantage. Both teams are defensively very strong, and, as noted above, their regular season numbers are stunningly alike. So, with one eye on the small but significant difference in the goalies’ save percentages, and another on sheer gut instinct, I say… Ak Bars in seven.