Titles at stake

1 April 2010, 10:56

Gagarin Cup Conference Finals Start Thursday

The best-of-seven Conference Finals, the third round of the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) Gagarin Cup playoffs, start on Thursday, April 1. The top two teams from the KHL Western Conference will face each other that day, while the finalists from the Eastern Conference start their series on Friday, April 2. Winners of each series will receive trophies for winning their respective Conferences, before moving on to battle for the KHL’s ultimate prize: the Gagarin Cup.

Conference final matchups of the 2010 KHL playoffs are as follows.

Western Conference

2nd seed HC MVD Moscow region vs 5th seed Lokomotiv Yaroslavl
Despite having a better record over the course of the regular season and having lost only one game during the playoffs, HC MVD is entering the series as an underdog. The Lokomotiv squad is considered more talented and balanced and has more depth both on the attack and on defense. Nonetheless, HC MVD has its own strengths and will no doubt provide a very competitive matchup. During the regular season, both teams played in the Tarasov Division and HC MVD won 3 of 4 head-to-head games by a total score 11-7.

HC MVD, led by Oleg Znarok, who is also the head coach of the Latvian national team, have defeated CSKA (3 -0) and Dinamo Riga (4-1) in the earlier Gagarin Cup playoff rounds. Lokomotiv, coached by the defensive-minded veteran Petr Vorobiev, disposed of Atlant Moscow region (3-1) and Spartak Moscow (4-2) in the previous series.

The HC MVD lineup is balanced and relies heavily on team discipline fitness and blazing-speed counter-attacks. Canadian Michael Garnett has been steady in goal (1.71 GAA and .925 save percentage in 8 games). Defensive corps are led by the Slovak-Czech pair Martin Strbak (2 goals and 6 points) and Filip Novak (both average more than 24:30 of ice time), with Maxim Soloviev and Maxim Velikov providing solid support. On offense, team veteran Alexei Tsvetkov has been great (3 goals and 8 points in the playoffs), while speedy winger Denis Kokarev is steadily improving (3 goals and 6 points so far). Belarussian national Alexei Ugarov, scorer of the Dinamo Riga series clinching goal in 2nd OT of game 5, is also extremely reliable. Canadian center Matt Ellison has scored only 1 assist during the Riga series, yet still is the third best scorer on the team (2 goals, 6 points).

Lokomotiv boasts the presence of goalie Georgi Gelashvili who will likely suit up for the Russian national team at the World Championship (1.94 GAA and .938 SVS in 10 playoff games). Their defense is anchored by the heavy hitting Vitaly Vishnevsky (3 assists and a “+ 10”) and defensive sniper Alexander Guskov (4 goals in the playoffs - none of the other Yaroslavl defensemen have scored goals so far). On offense, the attack is balanced and responsible, and led by the towering Alexei Mikhnov (5 goals and 10 points), Gennadi Churilov (3 goals and 10 points) and the Stanley Cup-winning Czech center Josef Vasicek (5 goals and 9 points). There are also several famous players that have been disappointing so far – Slovak winger Richard Zednik with 1 goal and 3 assists in 10 games, Stanley Cup winner Dmitry Afanasenkov and veteran Igor Korolev (zero points between them).

Eastern Conference

1st seed Salavat Yulaev Ufa vs 3rd seed Ak Bars Kazan
A classic matchup between representatives of wealthy regions – Bashkortostan and Tatarstan – will be seen here. Ufa is the reigning regular season champion and the Kontinent Cup winner. Ak Bars is the defending Gagarin Cup champion and will fight bravely against the favored opposition. During the regular season, the two teams have met twice with each coming away with one win.

Salavat Yulaev is coached by the Russian national team chief Vyacheslav Bykov who is poised to win it all after the humiliating defeat at the recent Olympic tournament in Vancouver. The Ufa squad defeated lowly Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg (3-1) and the tough Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk (4-2) in the previous Gagarin Cup rounds. Meanwhile Ak Bars dismantled Barys Astana (3-0) and Metallurg Magnitogorsk (4-2) earlier in the playoffs.

Salavat has a steady goaltending unit with both Alexander Eremenko and Vitaly Kolesnik handling netminding duties competently. Both have GAA around 1.30 and save percentages above .950 in the playoffs. Ufa’s defensive corps is solidified by Miroslav Blatak, the Czech national team representative, as well as experienced Dmitri Kalinin, Oleg Tverdovsky and Vitaly Proshkin. Alexander Radulov (3 goals, 15 points) and Patrik Thoresen (5 goals, 10 points) are the team’s top scorers and also scoring leaders of the KHL playoffs this season. Other forwards haven’t been as dominant but certainly can provide additional scoring for Salavat Yulaev.

Finnish goalie Petri Vehanen will be the “rock” Ak Bars will strongly rely on. So far, he’s been spectacular (1.29 GAA, .948 save percentage) and most recently shut down the powerful Magnitogorsk offense pretty easily. Vehanen has received well-placed help from his defense that lacks star-caliber blueliners but possesses physical presence and discipline. During the last season, Ak Bars offense was primarily powered by Alexei Morozov and Danis Zaripov. This year’s playoffs campaign has featured significant contributions from foreign players as well – Jarkko Immonen (2 goals, 10 points) is the team’s top scorer, Niko Kapanen has 4 goals and 7 points and mid-season acquisitions Roman Kukumberg (4 goals) and Hannes Hyvonen (3 goals and 4 points) are extremely versatile and can turn the tide of each game in favor of their team in a moment.

The Gagarin Cup, the KHL's post-season tournament, named for famed Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, features sixteen teams consisting of the top eight teams from the KHL’s Eastern and Western Conferences.

The first round of the KHL’s Gagarin Cup is best-of-five games, while all subsequent rounds, including the Gagarin Cup finals, featuring the Eastern Conference and Western Conference champions, are best-of-seven games.

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