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The quest for Gagarin Cup glory – Western Conference, round one

19.02.2013

SKA St. Petersburg vs Atlant Moscow Region
This is a play-off clash which already has some history to it: back in 2011, Atlant pulled off the great escape to claw back a 1-3 deficit and sink SKA in the Conference semis. That year saw Milos Riha take the Moscow Region side to the grand final … and earn himself a switch to St. Petersburg.

Two years on, Riha is unemployed, and Atlant is buzzing after pulling off an even greater escape. At the turn of the year few would have given the team any hope of reaching the play-offs, and the roster began shedding star names like Nikolai Zherdev and Jonas Andersson. Then came the miracle – nine wins from 11 games, culminating in a 5-0 drubbing of Metallurg Novokuznetsk on Sunday and a last-gasp lunge into eighth place.

It’s a tough tie coming up, though. Since Jukka Jalonen replaced Riha at the start of December, SKA has won 18 from 22 to romp to the Kontinental Cup – the first major trophy in the club’s history. Not even the departure of Ilya Kovalchuk, locked back into his contract with the Devils, could slow the march of the Army Men. After spending big to achieve (relatively) small, this might finally be SKA’s year to land the big prize.

CSKA Moscow vs Lev Prague
An intriguing contest between one of the most illustrious clubs in hockey history, and the newest team in the league sees the newly-wealthy CSKA look to reassert itself as a major force in the Russian game. After struggling in recent seasons, Rosneft’s cash injection has transformed the Moscow side’s roster into a big-hitting line-up – with the volatile talent of Alexander Radulov leading the way.

The season has not been without its controversies, with Valery Bragin’s unexpected departure from behind the bench in December raising more than a few eyebrows. But with Vyacheslav Butsayev filling in, a run of 13 wins from 18 ensured a strong finish to the season. Radulov’s 68-point contribution has caught the eye, but this team’s strength starts at the back where goalie Rastislav Stana has the league’s best goal average.

Lev’s debut season has already been a success: the team has attracted good crowds to KHL games in Prague despite the competition from local heroes Sparta and Slavia, and a high-profile clash against Dynamo Moscow (Chara vs Ovechkin in those heady lock-out days) attracted a KHL record attendance of 16,317. Having achieved play-off qualification, anything else is a bonus for Lev. Mikko Maenpaa and Tomas Surovy return to face their former club, and the Czechs also boast Jakub Klepis – scorer of last season’s Gagarin Cup-winning goal – on the roster.

Dynamo Moscow vs Slovan Bratislava
The oldest hockey club in Russia faces the oldest club in the KHL, with Dynamo’s Gagarin Cup defense beginning against a league newcomer which began life in Slovakia in the 1920s. The Moscow club, however, has looked vulnerable in recent weeks as it adapts to life without the stellar skills of Alexander Ovechkin and Niklas Backstrom, as well as the popular Leonid Komarov.

While the team’s form has not been disastrous since the New Year, it’s lacked a cutting edge at times, prompting suspicions that the roster needs a go-to guy – either with the game-breaking skills of an Ovechkin or the sheer will-to-win the Komarov brought last season. As always, though any Oleg Znarok team is tough to beat – if it can find the firepower to advance.

Slovan, like Lev, will regard a play-off spot as a success in its first KHL campaign. It’s been a team effort, with goalscoring duties shared among Michel Miklik, Roman Kukumberg, Libor Hudacek, Michal Vondrka and Mario Bliznak during the long-term absence of injured star Miroslav Satan. It sets up an intriguing clash between two outfits where the emphasis is on team-work and solidly-drilled defense – Rostislav Cada’s coaching philosophy shares some similarities with Znarok’s in its cautious, well-organized approach to winning games. This series could throw up the upset of the first round in the West.

Lokomotiv Yaroslavl vs Severstal Cherepovets
Lokomotiv would undoubtedly be the neutral’s choice for play-off success this season – from the moment the club returned to the ice after the tragedy of September2010 the Yaroslavl team has been buoyed by a huge wave of sympathy from supporters all over the world. On the ice, meanwhile, head coach Tom Rowe has carefully assembled a roster of exciting young talent – much of it home-produced – seasoned with experienced old heads. His pre-season ambition was to build a team that would go “deep into the play-offs” and that hope is very much alive.

Loko has played Severstal four times this season, winning three and enjoying two shut-outs in the first two meetings when Semyon Varlamov was minding the net. But all four encounters have been hard-fought affairs and a tough series is in prospect. For young prospects like Daniil Apalkov and Sergei Plotnikov it’s the latest big challenge in a breakthrough season, for the likes of Staffan Kronwall and Alexei Kalyuzhny it’s time to put years of big game experience to use.

Severstal, under the guidance of former Vityaz coach Andrei Nazarov, has enjoyed a better regular season than usual and the Cherepovets side could be dark horses for a strong play-off run. The arrival of Mikhail Anisin, star of last year’s post-season when his record-breaking goal haul fired Dynamo to victory, adds intrigue and a touch of flair to an obstinate roster which has been hard to break down all season.