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Western Conference semis – derby drama and refereeing rows

06.03.2013

The two semi-finals in the West have thrown up two very different pairs: in Moscow, it’s a fierce local battle between two teams with little to choose between them. In St. Petersburg, SKA faces Severstal, with the underdog gently warning that it won’t be content to play a supporting role in the regular season champion’s anticipated progress. The action gets underway on Thursday at 1930 Moscow time.

CSKA Moscow vs Dynamo Moscow
The capital’s top two sides have already produced two thrilling encounters in the regular season – and they come to the Conferences semis well rested after sweeping their opponents in the opening round. But Dynamo coach Oleg Znarok has admitted that a 10-day lay-off might not be the best preparation for his team as it looks to further its title defense against its local rivals.

“It’s a serious problem,” he told journalists. “Everyone’s rhythm is disrupted, everything starts over. In the past year we’ve often had problems after such a long break.” Those problems could be seen in last year’s successful play-off run: a 4-0 Conference Final win over SKA left Dynamo waiting to face Avangard, and a hint of ring-rustiness left the Blue-and-Whites trailing 1-3 in that series before launching a dramatic recovery.

Meanwhile Dynamo’s play-off campaign has seen the emergence Jakub Petruzalek as the leading goal scorer in the Western play-offs, with 5+2 in his four appearances against Slovan. The Czech, who came to Moscow from Amur in January, is expecting a tough time adding to his tally in the coming series, though, telling R-Sport: “They’ve got a strong team, and Rastislav Stana is a great goalie. They don’t give their opponents many chances to score goals. We need to play to our strengths and make sure we’re ready to stop them.”

For CSKA, Alexander Radulov has been picked out as the key man: many of the players at Lev Prague felt that the forward was the key figure in the quarter-final series after he returned 1+6 to have a hand in most of CSKA’s goals. But the man himself is expecting a hard-fought battle, with both teams having the same long lay-off going into this week’s games.

“Dynamo is a well-balanced team with a strong bench which can play aggressive hockey,” he told R-Sport. “Don’t forget that this is the defending champion, and it won’t be easy for us. We’re not expecting an easy ride, but CSKA also has a good team and before the series it’s impossible to say which is stronger.”

SKA St. Petersburg vs Severstal Cherepovets
Goal-hungry SKA is the hot favorite to end Severstal’s play-off adventure after blitzing Atlant with a series of thrashings in the quarter-final series. The Petersburg team overwhelmed its opponent with an aggregate score of 22-4, taking the series in five and reasserting its reputation as one of the most potent attacking forces in the game.

However, defenseman Yury Alexandrov – a former Severstal player – has highlighted the solid defensive work that underpinned those attacking masterclasses. “For us, everything starts in defense,” he told Sport Express. “Even our forwards play their part at the back. It’s not just about conceding as few goals as possible, it’s about giving the opposition the fewest possible chances to score, cutting out any mistakes.”

As for the defensive challenges posed by Severstal, where last season’s play-off record-breaker Mikhail Anisin has already grabbed four post-season goals, Alexandrov points out that SKA hasn’t exactly been struggling in front of goal either – and hopes that Maxim Chudinov might have the key to getting past Severstal goalie Vasily Koshechkin. “Any goalie is like half a team in himself, and when he’s playing well that’s a huge boost for his team. But you need to ask Maxim how to score on [Koshechkin]. They played together in Cherepovets for a long time, and I’m sure he knows.”

But Severstal showed great persistence to overcome Lokomotiv in a hard-fought, attritional series between two evenly-matched teams – and the depth of character required to snatch a win deep in the third period of overtime shows that Andrei Nazarov’s roster is unlikely to submit to the kind of thumpings endured by Atlant.

Nazarov himself has warmed up for the series by sending an open letter to league president Alexander Medvedev calling for the issue to be settled on the ice and without refereeing controversy. While praising the strides made in improving the officiating in the league this season, Severstal’s head coach also fired a pre-emptive shot against any possibility that officials might feel pressured into favoring “the flagship of our league” during the up-coming series.

On the ice, Nazarov’s most pressing concern is the fitness of forward Vadim Shipachyov. He has returned to full training following injury, but his prospects of playing in game one of the semi-final will only be confirmed on game day on Thursday.