The wait is almost over: tonight, at 7:30 pm Moscow time, sees the puck drop on the Opening Cup.
This year’s curtain-raiser pits Gagarin Cup winner SKA against Champion of Russia CSKA in a reprise of last season’s thrilling Western Conference final. Back then CSKA opened up a 3-0 lead in the series, only to be sensationally pegged back by SKA as the Panarin-Dadonov-Shipachyov line hit some breath-taking form to lead the Petersburg team to glory. Now, though, both teams are gearing up for a new challenge – and the first question is whether Dmitry Kvartalnov’s men can go one better this season and bring the top prize back to Moscow.
Regardless of the summer comings and goings on Leningradsky Prospekt, few could argue that the team’s prospects go hand-in-hand with the form and fitness of talisman Alexander Radulov. His performances in the regular season last time around were often breath-taking: under Kvartalnov he looks a revitalized player, free from the demons that can plague his game and now capable of scoring at will. His injury in the play-offs undoubtedly hurt the team’s Gagarin Cup push and weakened Russia’s World Championship campaign, so hopes are high that the newly-wed forward will continue to terrorize defenses as before.
The big addition to the roster is Swedish goalie Viktor Fasth, who arrives from Edmonton Oilers. He comes with a wealth of international experience and impressive stats from his campaigns in Europe. Meanwhile ex-CSKA players Igor Ozhiganov and Dmitry Kugryshev are back in Moscow after impressive form at Sibir last season. The pair blossomed under Kvartalnov’s guidance when they first moved to Novosibirsk, and if they repeat that success on their return to Moscow it could make a big difference to CSKA’s chances of lifting the big cup at the end of the season.
However there are also some high-profile departures: talented young forward Nikolai Prokhorkin is off to Salavat Yulaev, as is Igor Grigorenko. The latter has been a long-term strike partner of Radulov and recreating that chemistry up front could be the decisive feature of the Army Men’s season this time out.
Another departure, Evgeny Artyukhin, will line up against his former team-mates on Monday. The uncompromising forward is seldom far from the sin bin, but his rugged contributions in center ice did a lot to protect flair players like Radulov and Stephane da Costa last season. Now he will be expected to perform a similar task in Petersburg, perhaps playing in the image of his new head coach Andrei Nazarov.
Nazarov describes that new recruit as the best power forward in the KHL, and talked up his pre-season form for those who feel the player is more of a battering ram than a hockey talent. “Zhenya played ten games, scored three goals and had three more assists,” Nazarov told Sport Express. “Those are decent figures for any player.”
With other new arrivals including Joakim Lindstrom and Jarno Koskiranta, Nazarov has already stamped his own identity on the title-winning roster he inherited from the departing Vyacheslav Bykov. But nobody in Petersburg is willing to rest on the laurels of last year’s success despite some high profile departures including last season’s star Artemy Panarin.
Club president Gennady Timchenko set the tone in a pre-season interview, dismissing the old sporting axiom that the one thing harder than reaching the top is staying there. “I think we’ve every chance of repeating our triumph,” he told R-Sport. “Winning the first time is tough, but then you know how to do it, you know what’s needed. You have more experience and more confidence.”
Monday night is hockey night
In past seasons the KHL has started later in the week, typically on a Wednesday. This year’s Opening Cup is the first of a series of Big Match Mondays selected to boost TV audiences. The plan is simple: wherever the schedule allows, the league has tried to schedule a big-name battle for Monday evenings, creating a series of showdowns to attract TV coverage and get fans used to tuning in at the start of the week for some top level action. And fans all over the world can follow the action on KHL TV.