SKA vs Lokomotiv – Western Preview
Omsk, April 25, 2012. 52 minutes into game seven of the Gagarin Cup Final, Jakub Klepis scores the decisive goal for Dynamo Moscow, defeating Avangard. Dynamo’s captain, Alexei Kudashov, goes to collect the trophy and celebrates victory with head coach Oleg Znarok, two years after the pair lost out in game seven of the 2010 Grand Final with MVD.
Fast forward to 2017. Five years on, Kudashov and Znarok are seeking more Gagarin Cup glory … but this time they stand in each other’s way. Znarok, who went on to defend his title in Moscow before taking up his position with Team Russia, is now behind the bench at SKA. Kudashov ended his playing career after Dynamo’s first triumph and spent two seasons as head coach at Atlant before moving to Lokomotiv in 2015. Now, both men are preparing for this week’s Western Conference Final as SKA faces Lokomotiv.
Znarok’s coaching career is well-known. His success at club and international level speaks for itself, while his spiky character has introduced a new, combative attitude to Team Russia after the patrician strategies of the Zinetula Bilyaletdinov era. At SKA, the lavish collection of exquisitely talented players on offense feels different to his previous club teams at MVD and Dynamo. But for all the thrilling talent on display, the Army Men are no soft touch when it comes to a battle. Maybe it isn’t co-incidence that Pavel Datsyuk, that most elegant of hockey players, picked up the first game misconduct of his career while playing under Znarok. Anyone involved with this coach understands that talent – no matter how outrageous – will never be enough to exempt any player from putting in the hard yards on the ice.
Kudashov’s story is a bit different. Two seasons of struggle at Atlant saw financial constraints hamper the team. Twice, he fell just short of a playoff spot. When Lokomotiv came calling, it looked like a change of direction for the Yaroslavl team: no more big-name foreigners; instead, a calculated gamble on a rising star of Russian coaching. Now 45, Kudashov shows signs of delivering on that promise – and of helping Loko develop its own emerging talents. He’s spoken of his willingness to give serious game time to the leading products of the renowned Yaroslavl hockey school, and that has been rewarded with big performances from the likes of Pavel Kraskovsky, Yegor Korshkov and Alexander Polunin. That trio has impressed for club and country, playing as a single line at Lokomotiv and for Russia’s u20s. The elder two, Kraskovsky and Korshkov, also featured in Russia’s senior roster during the successful Euro Hockey Tour campaign. Polunin, already attracting attention from across the Atlantic, told IIHF.com earlier this season that Lokomotiv’s commitment to nurturing young talent was a big part of why he left Moscow to continue his development in Yaroslavl. “Because of the coaches’ trust, young players gain confidence and play better,” he said. “It’s very good because it helps me develop and grow better and faster.”
That young trio has played a valuable cameo role in the current playoffs, but Lokomotiv’s biggest strength so far has been its power play. It’s no coincidence that D-man Jakub Nakladal, a two-way player with a mighty slap shot, is the team’s leading goalscorer: partnered by Staffan Kronwall while Brandon Kozun pulls those power play strings, the Czech has emerged as a formidable weapon in post-season, three seasons after he helped defeat Lokomotiv at this stage while playing for Lev Prague.
Kudashov has some injury worries: first-choice goalie Alexei Murygin missed the last two games of the series against CSKA and his fitness is uncertain ahead of Thursday’s opener in Petersburg. Kozun took a hit to the head during Grigory Panin’s rampage on Saturday and did not feature in the latter half of that game.
Znarok, meanwhile, is without defenseman Vyacheslav Voynov, who has not featured since appearing in one shift in the final game of the regular season.
Metallung vs Ak Bars – Eastern Preview
When it comes to Eastern Conference success, Metallurg Magnitogorsk and Ak Bars Kazan are the go-to teams. Between them, they’ve featured in five out of eight Gagarin Cup finals. They’ve represented the Eastern Conference in the last three seasons and both organizations are bidding to become the first team in history to win three Gagarin Cups. Yet their paths to glory have been somewhat different.
For Metallurg, continuity has been the key. The team that has reached this stage bears more than a passing resemblance to Mike Keenan’s 2014 championship roster. Persevering with the Mozyakin–Kovar–Zaripov troika was something of a no-brainer, but it’s impressive to see how many senior players from three years ago are still producing top-class performances. The likes of goalie Vasily Koshechkin and defenseman Chris Lee remain formidable players, while Lee’s partner Viktor Antipin, still just 24, has matured into a player whose contribution belies his relatively young age. New players have been introduced, but they tend to emerge from within the Metallurg youth system – eg Alexei Bereglazov – or get snapped up as promising youngsters – such as Evgeny Timkin or Tomas Filippi. There’s no attempt to buy instant success here; the focus is on establishing a dynasty at the top of the game.
Even behind the bench, the changes have been evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Keenan moved upstairs into an advisory role during the 2014-15 season, bringing his deputy, Ilya Vorobyov, into the spotlight. Vorobyov has continued to work with the coaching infrastructure that existed under Keenan, and the whole organization has reaped the rewards of that consistency. While there may be an element of good fortune in that key players have remained fit and in form for several seasons, there’s no luck at all about consistent results at a club that has established a clear model of how it plays its hockey.
The Ak Bars story is rather different. On the face of it, it’s easy to draw a direct line linking Zinetula Bilyaletdinov’s all-conquering teams of 2009 and 2010 and the present roster. Coach Bill is still in charge, and during his absence on international duty his place was filled by long-term right-hand man Valery Belov. When Bilyaletdinov led the team to the Gagarin Cup final in 2015 at the end of his first season back at the club following his spell in charge of Team Russia, it felt like business as usual at a club he has dominated for more than a decade.
Not so. A radical overhaul of the club’s roster followed the 1-4 loss to SKA. It started on defense, where Ilya Nikulin, Evgeny Medvedev and Yakov Rylov were among the stalwarts to move on. Of the nine D-men who suited up in the 2015 playoffs, only Stepan Zakharchuk and Damir Musin are still involved in Kazan, while goalie Emil Garipov has emerged from the sidelines to be the undisputed #1.
Up front, the changes are less prominent, although the departure of Osсar Moller has affected the potency of Ak Bars’ offense. The key new figure, Vladimir Tkachyov, was involved in 2015 but has gone from a bit-part player to a vital component of the attack. Now 23, he’s enjoyed something of a break-out year this time around, winning an All-Star call-up and international recognition. Currently he tops the post-season scoring in Kazan with 11 (2+9) points. This season’s leading playoff goalscorers for the club, Jiri Sekac and Fyodor Malykhin, have both arrived since the previous Grand Final appearance. Sekac, part of the Lev Prague team that reached the 2014 final, has renewed a profitable combination with Justin Azevedo, Malykhin has quietly grown in stature since arriving from Avtomobilist.
Perhaps the most intriguing change in the two rosters involves Rafael Batyrshin. This time last year, the defenseman was part of Magnitka’s cup-winning roster. Now, he’s shrugged off the injuries that blighted his regular season and is a solid part of Ak Bars’ defense. An archetypal ‘stay-at-home’ D-man, Batyrshin doesn’t grab the headlines in the manner of Lee or Nikulin – his three post-season assists this time around represent a career high. Now, Kazan waits to see if his insider knowledge of Magnitka’s all-powerful forwards can wrest the cup away from the holder.