Alessandro Seren Rosso – Staff writer
After eight months of hard battle, the KHL’s inaugural season has arrived to the final chapter. Twenty-four teams fought in the regular season, sixteen of them walked through the playoffs and Ak Bars Kazan and Lokomotiv Yaroslavl are the last two franchises who now will contend the first Gagarin Cup, the trophy held by Igor Larionov in the picture courtesy of khl.ru
The finals will start on 2nd April and two consecutive matches will be played, followed by a rest day. This kind of tight schedule has been hardly discussed over the season and it’s likely to change next season.
The two teams skated through different paths to get there: Ak Bars had to fight hard in a tight semifinals series against Dynamo Moscow, a team with a deep lineup featuring some former NHL players like Daniil Markov, Matthias Weinhandl and Alexey Zhitnik. The series “surprisingly” ended 4-2 in their favour, and it was a little surprise as anyone thought of a 7-games series.
Prior of the Muscovite team, in the quarterfinals Ak Bars encountered another uncomfortable partner: Avangard Omsk. The siberian team lead by Jaromir Jagr sensationally eliminated Salavat Yulaev Ufa, the reigning champions and the regular season’s winners.
The series was thought as drammatic, and thus, it was. Avangard got the lead in the series after the first and the third match, but the tenacious team coached by former Phoenix Coyotes’ assistant Zinetula Bilyaletdinov trashed them 11-1 in the fourth match. In the fifth, decisive match, Avangard was up 2-1 till fifteen seconds to go, the a slapshot by Ilya Nikulin from the blue line sent the match to the overtime, and in the overtime Oleg Petrov made the rest.
In the first round they needed just three matches to get rid of Kazakhstani KHL newcomers of Barys Astana.
Lokomotiv Yaroslavl had instead an easier path.
The team lead by Yashin needed only five matches to get rid of Metallurg Magnitogorsk. The Ural team had really a bad season, after losing first to the New York Rangers in the Victoria Cup finals, then to Swiss ZSC Lions of Zurich for the European Champions’ League. And just a couple of days ago their main star, Jan Marek, announced that he doesn’t know where he will play in the next season.
The team led by Yashin in the quarterfinals skated past Spartak Moscow in only three matches, while in the first round they have been surprised by Krikunov’s Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk in the first match, then they striked back with three unanswered wins. The first defeat caused some havoc because Neftekhimik is always a hard team to play against, but Lokomotiv managed to neutralize the threat efficiently.
Previewing the final series
Just like any other finals in sports, this one is hard to predict. Both teams play an efficient hockey and have big stars in their front lines. Lokomotiv Yaroslavl features Alexey Yashin, but Ak Bars can reply with Alexey Morozov. If the White Leopards can count on a great sniper like Danis Zaripov, Yaroslavl has the veteran of 826 NHL matches Josef Vasicek.
That said, the teams play a different kind of hockey. Yaroslavl is more disciplined, more straightforward following the dictates of Finn coach Kari Heikkila. They play a tight defensive game and usually they manage to control the match if the score the 1-0 goal.
Bilyaletdinov’s Ak Bars instead plays a more entertaining hockey, based off quick counterattacks and an effective passing game. Kazan’s speed is hard to contain as seen in the series against Dynamo, where the Moscow team often left too room to the forwards, who got no challenge in the open ice.
The goalkeepers’ fight
As can easily spotted by the results, both teams features in the respective lineup excellent goalies. Ak Bars though could have the upper hand in this, since they have two very good goalkeepers. Fredrik Norrena is their starter, even if when the season was young this position belonged to the current Columbus Blue Jackets player Wade Dubielewicz. Norrena provided strong, quality goaltending, posting 1.92 GAA and .918 saves pct in the 10 post season games played with the team. But he suffered from a hand injury and thus some games have been played by the 21-years old Stanislav Galimov, number on hands the best goalkeeper of the playoffs with only 1.09 GAA and a great .954 saves percentage. Galimov is untested at such high levels, even if he played his share of junior tournaments, and Bilyaletdinov has already stated that Norrena probably will start against Lokomotiv.
Georgi Gelashvili is probably the best keeper of the season. After a very good 2007-08 campaign with Traktor Chelyabinsk, he moved this summer to Lokomotiv after a conflict with Traktor’s head coach Andrei Nazarov. During the regular season he climbed the goalie rankings and he ended up with a .933 saves pct that has been the #1 regarding wins, with 30, the #3 for the GAA among starters with 1.83 and the #5 among the starting goalies for the saves pct.
Gelashvili surely has great stats and a solid playing style, but Lokomotiv needs a good backup goalkeeper. Sergei Zvyagin unfortunately is too old to compete at such level effectively, while perspective Sergei Gaiduchenko has never been used by Heikkila in the last months despite the excellent stats he collected in the three games he played with the team in the KHL regular season. I’d thus say that Ak bars in the goaltenders’ position has a little advantage over Lokomotiv.
By browsing the names’ list, one can easily assume that Ak Bars’ defense has more quality and depth. In some sense it’s true. When you have in your lineup Ilya Nikulin (foto), Alexei Emelin and such players, is hard to do better in the KHL. Coach Bilyaletdinov has built a nice defensive troop for his team pairing Nikulin with Pervyshin in the first line and some kind of turnover in the other pairings. Usually the third pair – used as emergency unit – has been the one formed by Alexei Emelin and Grigori Panin. The two young players form a very solid, reliable pair together. Both play a physical style of hockey, without forgetting how to play, and usually Bilyaletdinov ice them in such situations that require that kind of play, like when they are one goal up and the opponents remove the goalie. But now there is a problem: Alexei Emelin is injured after a big blow he got in a fight from former NHL player Alexander Svitov. In the last game against Dinamo Panin was disqualified and so he has been replaced in the lineup by young Vasily Tokranov, forcing Bilyaletdinov to overplay the veterans. But things will change in the finals series, especially if Emelin could return back on ice.
Vyacheslav Buravchikov is another player who deserves some credit. He has been chosen by the Sabres in the third round of the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, just to fade away as he could not live up to the expectations. Now 22, Buravchikov is among the most progressed players of the season and he had a very good 2008-09 campaign. He and Bilyaletdinov are to be praised as they managed to turn in their favour, consequently helping the team, a difficult situation.
Ak Bars Kazan can count on another very good defenseman, Evgeny Medvedev, who’s unknown outside of Russia but has delivered strong performances in the last two seasons for the White Leopards. Prior of that he was playing for Severstal Cherepovets. Native of Chelyabinsk, Medvedev is an offensive defenseman with excellent passing skills who can effectively play in even strenght and powerplay situations, even if sometimes he gets caught off bad positioning.
Lokomotiv too has good blue liners, of course. The most used defenseman by head coach Kiri Hekkila is former NHL veteran of 552 games Vitaly Vishnevsky (foto from IIHF.com), who logged in the playoffs an average of almost twenty-two minutes per game.
Vishnevsky hasn’t changed much since his NHL days. He keeps on playing a very aggressive game, sometimes going over the edge, like when he get off the ice the young Kirill Kabanov in the series against Spartak Moscow. He’s the most proficient Lokomotiv defenseman as he netted two goals assisting other five for a total of seven points in twelve matches. His good play at both end of the ice is fundamental for Yaroslavl as they lacked last season of a player like him.
The team coached by Heikkila hasn’t only Vishnevsky on the blue line. Puck-moving Swede defenseman Johan Akermann has missed eight games due to an injury, but he’s riding the average of a point per game since his return, having recorded four points in as many matches. Actually he had points just in the first two matches, but his experience is valuable to his team. He might not be the fastest skater in the world, and his aged physique limited him to play twelve minutes a game, but anything can happen when he plays the point in the powerplay, thanks to his excellent vision and intelligence of play.
Another interesting defenseman from Haikkila’s team is the young Vitaly Anikeenko. A former pick of the Ottawa Senators, Anikeenko always had the talent, but not always the motivation. For some reasons this time he finally decide to give the hundred percent and it paied off as his excellent blue line slapshot started causing havoc in the offensive zone and his physical play began to make a difference for his team. The defensive roster is completed by some veterans like Alexei Vasiliev, Ilya Gorokhov and the tight defenseman Sergei Zhukov.
Kari Heikkila rotates the defense more, Bilyaletdinov regularly plays with three pairs and it might hard for Kazan to match the Yaroslavl’s freshness in the defense. But the red-jersey backline is slower and will have some difficulties in dealing with quick counterattacks from Kazan’s forwards. A part the top lines, they have speedy and skilled players like Dmitri Kazionov, Dmitri Obukhov and Gleb Klimenko who will be very hard to contain.
The forwards (aka Morozov vs Yashin)
Touted as the top stars of the respective teams, Alexei Morozov and Alexei Yashin are two of the top KHL talents. Simply by backing up words with numbers, the two players this year scored a combined amount of 117 points (Morozov scored 70). In the playoffs both players are of course taking their team on the shoulders, but surprisingly the former Penguin isn’t the team’s topscorer as Swede center Tony Martensson has one point more. But if these players are the teams’ finest expression of the offence, their attacks don’t start and finish with them. Let’s have a look at the lines.
Ak Bars relied for the past few seasons on the famous ZZM line made up of Danis Zaripov, Sergei Zinoviev and Alexei Morozov. But something went wrong during the 07-08 season and as a result Zinoviev changed team midway through the current year, skating to Dynamo Moscow. For Bilyaletdinov wasn’t hard to substitute the talented – but unstable – Zinoviev as they didn’t need to test the market: Tony Martensson was in the lineup already. By moving the Swede in the top line Ak Bars lost almost nothing after Zinoviev’s escape as just like him, the Swede is a talented player with tons of vision and excellent passing skills. Having on the flanks an all-around player like Morozov and a lethal sniper like Zaripov meants that he can rack up points easily – as he did – and thus he gained confidence and trust from the coach.
If Zaripov – Martensson – Morozov is maybe the best KHL line, Lokomotiv’s first unit isn’t far off as they ice Yashin with the two Czech masters Zbynek Irgl and Josef Vasicek. If the latter is a known player worldwide, the same can’t be said for Zbynek Irgl. Touted by Semen Varlamov of the Washington Capitals as “Russian league’s better player in the shoot outs”, Irgl combines power and technique to be an excellent, dangerous player. Moreover this season he shared the puck more with his linemates, thus increasing his assists production, almost doubling it from ten to eighteen. A former draft pick of the Nashville Predators, Igrl is a hard player to contain, and the White Leopards’ defensemen will have to stay focus while dealing with his line.
Ak Bars might have another little edge while digging up the other lines. Jukka Hentunen and Dmitri Kazionov are two very good two-way forwards quick with the puck and with a good sense for the net. Yaroslavl’s Konstantin Rudenko and Ivan Tkachenko are quick as well, and will get busy the opposition defensemen. Lokomotiv has other very good players in Dmitri Semin and former Edmonton Alexei Mikhnov, while Ak Bars can reply with Niko Kapanen, veteran Oleg Petrov and energy guy Alexander Stepanov.
It will be a great, interesting and probably long series to watch. The teams play a different kind of hockey, more organized, disciplined and defensive Lokomotiv, more offensive and quick Ak Bars. It’s going to be a tough battle, in which most likely the first team to score will have a big edge: Lokomotiv is great in scoring the first goal then protecting the lead, while they have difficulties in setting up when down by one or two goals. Going for a prediction is hard, but I’d say Ak Bars can take it in the seventh game. They have more players who can score and the home ice advantage. But if Lokomotiv would win, no one is going to be shocked.
- Both teams are used to skate to the finals, for Lokomotiv is the second straight one, while Ak Bars reached the final stage three times in the last four years
- Ak Bars’ top line doesn’t score since semifinals’ third game, when a goal by Zaripov gifted them a huge 1-0 win in Moscow
- Lokomotiv has a perfect record in playoffs’ away games
- Gelashvili enters in the finals with a shutout streak of 128 minutes and 49 seconds
- Gelashvili’s personal goalkeeping coach is Kazakhstani specialist Valery Kiselev, who works also with Phoenix Coyotes’ Ilya Bryzgalov