Russian hockey has long been dominated by the beasts from the East - since 2006 no team from the west has been able to wrest the title away from Kazan, Magnitogorsk or Ufa. But the country’s Eastern-most top-level team, Amur Khabarovsk, has typically struggled to make the play-offs. In three seasons of KHL hockey the Tigers have failed to get close to the top 16: prior to that they reached one Superleague play-off in 2008 but crashed out to Salavat Yulaev in the first round.
That sorry record, however, could be set to change this year: eight games in and the team from the Chinese border is topping the table, having beaten both Salavat Yulaev and Ak Bars already. Far from doom and gloom at the Platinum Arena, it looks like a season brimming with Far Eastern promise - but what’s made all the difference?
The arrival of coach Hannu Jortikka seems to have galvanized the club. He came in at the end of last season, attracted by the challenge of giving Amur’s traditionally big crowds something to cheer after several seasons in the doldrums. With him came compatriot Mikko Maenpaa, who has proved to be a solid defenseman with an eye for goal, and Jokerit’s Slovak goaltender Jan Lasak (pictured). But it’s been the arrival of Czech forward Jakub Petruzalek, previously with Finnish side Lukko, which has really fired the club’s unexpected push for success. Petruzalek, 26, returned to Europe in 2009 after five years in North America. In that time he failed to break into the NHL, making just two appearances for Carolina Hurricanes, but racked up plenty of game time in the AHL and OHL. A strong season for Lukko followed, with 57 points from 72 games and a coefficient of +27, prompting Jortikka to sign him up for Amur.
In Khabarovsk the Czech hasn’t disappointed, notching 11 points already this season to top the KHL scoring charts, and his 1+1 show against Ak Bars on Wednesday helped put the club on top of the table. That’s a familiar position for coach Jortikka, who has landed half a dozen Finnish championships with TPS, but he is refusing to get carried away.
Amur’s nearest rivals, Metallurg Novokuznetsk, play 3,000 km away, and thus far the team has played all its games far beyond the Urals. A 5-3 start from those eight games is nothing to be sniffed at - especially given the club’s usual struggles - but with upcoming fixtures in Slovakia, Belarus and Moscow Jortikka knows that it is too early to talk about any kind of success. “On Saturday we’re flying to Moscow, then on to Poprad, Minsk and back to Moscow. It’s really tough, but it’s the same for every team which flies to us.”
Meanwhile, like every coach, Jortikka is cautious about the future: “I knew what state the team was in when I signed my contract in April. Together we decided that we needed to go step by step and gradually push up the table.”
Wins against Ak Bars and Salavat Yulaev have been a boost, convincing the squad that it can match any opposition and delighting the long-suffering Amur faithful, but Jortikka warned against over-confidence: “We still have to play a tight, safe game. There are a lot of games ahead. And the fans need to remember that I’m just doing my job. It’s not me who is playing the hockey, it’s my team.”