Slava Voynov and Lubomir Visnovsky were the two big names to come to the KHL from across the Atlantic this month. Vishnovsky returned to his hometown team, Slovan Bratislava, after 14 seasons in the NHL, and went on to help Milos Riha’s team into the playoffs.
Voynov, meanwhile, was forced to leave the LA Kings after serving a sentence for a misdemeanor charge relating to a domestic violence case. The double Stanley Cup winner was still technically a player with Traktor, his last Russian club, but after protracted negotiations the Chelyabinsk team agreed a deal for him to move to SKA. Voynov made his debut on Nov. 10, contributing an assist on Nikita Gusev’s game-tying goal as SKA beat Dynamo Moscow 3-2.
While Voynov arrived in Petersburg to represent his first KHL team (his time in Chelyabinsk was before the KHL began), another player signed up for his eighth team in the competition at the end of the month. Nikolai Zherdev swapped HC Sochi for Torpedo. The forward, whose career has combined talent and frustration in equal measure, also played KHL hockey for Atlant, Ak Bars, Spartak, Severstal and Dynamo Moscow. He also signed up to play for Lev Prague in 2013 but left within weeks before the season got started.
The first anniversary of the death of legendary trainer Viktor Tikhonov was commemorated with the unveiling of a monument to him at Moscow’s Vagankovsky Cemetery on Nov. 25. The memorial was designed by sculptor Alexander Kukushkin, based on the ideas of Tikhonov’s widow, Tatyana. The ceremony was attended by many of the hockey stars who played on Tikhonov’s teams, as well as IIHF President Rene Fasel and KHL chief Dmitry Chernyshenko.
Sergei Mozyakin reached another milestone on December 11 with two goals against SKA to become the second-highest Russian goalscorer of all time. He overtook Vyacheslav Starshinov’s 408 goals – but couldn’t save Metallurg Magnitogorsk from a 3-5 defeat.
Russian hockey celebrated its 69th birthday – and Spartak Moscow went retro to commemorate the first ever game on December 22. Back in its traditional Sokolniki home, the Red-and-Whites held a historic-themed evening complete with vintage cars and fashions and even a Brezhnev lookalike watching on from the VIP box. But times change: back in the 1940s Moscow teams dominated the game; in 2015, Jokerit Helsinki eased to a 3-1 win over Spartak.
Team Russia warmed up for the 2016 World Championship with its first games in the new VTB Arena. But Oleg Znarok’s team had mixed results in Moscow in the annual Channel 1 Cup competition. A record-breaking 8-1 thrashing of Finland was the highlight, but it was flanked by defeats against Sweden and the Czech Republic.
Comings and goings continued, with former Traktor head coach Andrei Nikolishin taking over at Amur. SKA St. Petersburg was active in the transfer market, recruiting Steve Moses to pep up its offense. Moses, a KHL record goalscorer with Jokerit in the previous campaign, endured an unhappy return to America and headed back across the Atlantic after an unsuccessful stint with the Milwaukee Admirals. He made a bright start to life with SKA, scoring in his first two games for the club.
The All-Star Game set a clutch of new records and delighted a packed house in Moscow’s VTB Arena. The crowd was treated to the highest-scoring All-Star game thus far as the West won out 28-23. There were also individual records: Matt Ellison of Dinamo Minsk scored 7 goals, the best individual return. His solitary assist gave him eight points on the night, another record. Kirill Kaprizov of Metallurg Novokuznetsk became the youngest All-Star scorer. Alexander Radulov also caught the eye. He managed just one goal, but contrived to give away two penalty shots in the same incident as he wrestled with Sergei Mozyakin. Then, late in the game, he took over the goaltending duties to deny Mozyakin from yet another penalty shot, celebrating his save with greater excitement than his earlier goal.
Beaten in the game, the East at least blazed a trail of glory to win the skills show. Linus Omark lit the way – literally – attempting a penalty with a blazing stick.
Back to the serious business of KHL action and CSKA was the team to watch all month. By the end of January Dmitry Kvartalnov’s team was on an 11-game winning streak and just one victory away from lifting the Viktor Tikhonov Trophy, the prize for the regular season champion. CSKA thumped leader Lokomotiv 4-0 on Jan. 6, smashed through the 100-point barrier on Jan. 11 with a shoot-out victory over Avtomobilist and kept marching relentlessly forward.
Elsewhere the race for playoff qualification was hotting up – and some teams were feeling the pressure. Dynamo Moscow, down in seventh place in the West at New Year, replaced head coach Harijs Vitolins with Sergei Oreshkin and immediately saw an upturn in form with a 5-1 thrashing of SKA. Avtomobilist hedged its bets: Andrei Razin was that rare thing, a healthy scratch behind the bench, as the team sort to lift itself back into the top eight at home to Severstal … The gamble didn’t work, Avto lost 2-0 … and Razin was back in place for the rest of the season.
January 18th saw Vladimir Krikunov step down as head coach of Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk – the 13th head coach to lose his job this season. That was another new KHL record.
CSKA wrapped up the regular season championship with a 3-1 win at Metallurg Magnitogorsk on Feb. 3. The success saw the Army Men extend their winning streak to 12 games on the way to a convincing margin of victory at the top of the table. But the game in Magnitogorsk was also a precursor of the battle for the season’s biggest prize.
Elsewhere, the race for the Top-8 continued. In the East it was a three-horse race between Avtomobilist, Neftekhimik and Barys, although a sudden slump from Ak Bars briefly raised the prospect of the Kazan team missing out for the first time in the KHL era. Avto booked its spot first, a 3-0 victory over Ugra sending the Yekaterinburg team into seventh place. And when Barys failed to win in regulation at Eastern Conference leader Avangard on the final day of the season, Neftekhimik knew it had done enough to claim eighth place despite losing at home to Salavat Yulaev.
In the West things were more clear cut. Dinamo Minsk’s hopes of crashing the Top-8 came to an end in early February as Slovan Bratislava, under the charismatic leadership of Milos Riha, clinched the final post-season berth with two games to spare. An overtime win over Dinamo Riga put the Slovaks through to face CSKA in the playoffs.
Away from the race for a play-off spot, a little bit of history was made in Yaroslavl where Ivan Jankovic became the first Croatian skater to play for Medvescak Zagreb in the KHL. Previously the team had used Croatian-born goalies, but the 21-year-old forward managed five minutes against Lokomotiv to become the first home grown outfield player to earn a place in his country’s flagship team.
The 840 regular season games attracted more than 5 million fans, only the second time a KHL season achieved that landmark. The average attendance was 6,300. They saw the most effective defensive display of any KHL season, with an average of 4.95 goals per game, a touch lower than the 4.98 in the Olympic-shortened 2013-14 campaign. Lokomotiv goalie Alexei Murygin played his part in that, setting a KHL record of 13 shut-outs.