All clear in the East
All berths for play-off places in Eastern Conference have now been fully booked. Until today, two teams, Neftekhimik and Traktor, were still battling for the one remaining place. The Chelyabinsk men still had a mathematical chance, but they needed not only to win all their remaining four games in regulation time. They were also relying on the Nizhnekamsk men losing their last five games, also in regulation. So, an unrealistic chance, but still a chance…

Nevertheless, Valery Belousov’s men had no intention of going down without a fight, and they romped to a confident victory over Dynamo Moscow.

But Neftekhimik, not wanting to leave anything to chance, were anything but complacent, and with their triumph over Lokomotiv the Nizhnekamsk men sealed their place in the play-offs.

Wide open in the West
In the two previous championships, the intrigue continued right up to the final day of the regular season; not just regarding who will face whom in the first knock-out round, but indeed who will even make up the final sixteen. Remember, back in season 2008-09, Severstal lost their pass to the play-offs just 56 seconds before the end of the third period of their final game, and it went to Avangard, who had finished their regular season two days earlier and thought they had kissed their play-off dreams goodbye.

And a year ago, Sibir not only occupied eighth place, but hoped to finish seventh, leading 2-0 at the halfway point of their final game, and against the already-eliminated minnows of Vityaz, but they contrived to lose 2-5, while the KHL’s new boys of Avtomobilist managed a shock win on the road against one of the tournament’s big guns, and they leapfrogged Sibir to make the play-offs.

This season’s intrigue is now limited to the Western Conference, where as usual four teams battle for the last two places, but the main rivalry is between Torpedo and Dinamo Minsk. The Minsk men have only themselves to blame, as they held a healthy position in the standings but then went into freefall, losing seven of their last eight games. In contrast, the men of Nizhny Novgorod have won six of their last seven, and with today’s victory they took Dinamo’s place in the top eight. Now Vladimir Golubovich’s squad have a two-point cushion, a game in hand, and their opponents in the remaining games are less formidable than those which await the men of Minsk. All the same, keeping in mind the last two championships, it is too early to write off Dinamo Minsk, as Avangard in 2009 and Avtomobilist in 2010 fought back from far worse positions and joined the play-offs.

Goal blitz
As mentioned above, Neftekhimik bought a ticket to the play-offs today, and they did it in some style. Playing host to the Western Conference leaders, Lokomotiv, the Nizhnekamsk men endured a roller-coaster game, three times tying the score after being a goal behind, and before the halfway stage. Then the pendulum swung their way, and three times Vladimir Krikunov’s guys took the lead and Vladimír Vůjtek’s men equalized – but only twice, before the game’s twelfth goal went to the Nizhnekamsk men. Most fascinating of all was the final four goals all came in a hectic spell of only a minute and ten seconds, a new scoring record for the KHL. Indeed, only twice before in KHL history had two teams scored four times in under two minutes: both happened in the first season, and neither came close to today’s figure: Ak Bars and Sibir changed the score four times in one minute 49 seconds, while for Barys and Vityaz it took one minute 27 seconds.

Figure of the day
4 games this season in which Erik Ersberg has kept his goal intact. The Salavat Yulaev goalie, who did not arrive until November, now averages one shutout every four appearances, although three of his four victims are teams languishing in the depths of the KHL table: Metallurg Novokuznetsk, Amur and Vityaz.

Key players
Travis Scott (Traktor). Saved 28 shots out of 29.

Alexei Yemelin (Ak Bars). Scored two goals and earned a rating of +3.

Nikolai Belov (Neftekhimik). Added a goal, an assist, and a +3 to his account.

Evgeny Kuznetsov (Traktor). Scored a double.

Maxim Pestushko (Neftekhimik). Scored one goal himself, and assisted on three others.

Vyacheslav Kozlov (Salavat Yulaev). On his first game for his new team he set up one goal and scored the game-winner.

Quotes of the day
“Our first shifts relaxed us, and we got so sloppy it could’ve cost us the game. Thank heavens we had the right people for the second period. The third period was the same old story. Sadly, the intellect of some of our players means we can’t just play out a normal victory. Our opponents played free, entertaining hockey, and had great movement the whole game… The main thing is we still took three points and we’re fighting for our place in the play-offs,” Torpedo head coach Vladimir Golubovich.

“We gave the fans exciting, attacking hockey. Both teams looked better in offense. We made more mistakes than they did, and that’s why we lost. We couldn’t compete with Neftekhimik’s first line, which scored 5 of the 7 goals we allowed. I’m more disappointed with our defense; they couldn’t keep pace with their opponents,” Lokomotiv head coach Vladimír Vůjtek.

Alexei Shevchenko, special to khl.ru

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