Former SKA, Severstal, Dynamo Moscow, St. Louis Blues and Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Alexander Khavanov, now TV commentator and analyst shares his professional insight and gives his authoritative views on the teams, clubs, and events in and beyond the KHL.
The play-offs are upon us – the most fascinating time of any season. Let us today try to get to grips with what makes the play-offs so exciting for the fans and for the game itself.
The biggest difference of all from the regular season is in that at any stage of the knockout games you only have one opponent. There are many ways you can defeat this opponent and both you and your team have several attempts to achieve it. Even after unlucky, unsuccessful games you still have the chance to change something and make better use of your existing strengths, or try to create some specific playing advantage as the series progresses. Losing one game does not necessarily mean losing the entire series, and in the end, even if the opposing players are more skillful than your own, there remains a real possibility of simply wearing them out physically. In a long series, with the accompanying fatigue and mental exhaustion, plus the wear and tear of accumulated bruises, swellings and injuries, the teams’ chances soon level out.
Without a shadow of a doubt, the play-offs send the various teams and fans on a collision course, giving rise to fiercely competitive clashes which stay in the memory for many years after. And just as intense are the many collective and individual confrontations within each series, which develop as the series progresses: the offense of your team against the defense of theirs; their defensemen, in turn, against your attackers; goalie(s) against goalie(s); coach versus coach, and special team against special team.
All these confrontations are inevitably reflected in the statistics and in individual prizes won by players for their performances in the regular season and the Gagarin Cup. The KHL does not have the longest of histories, but nonetheless some definite patterns have clearly emerged.
The MVP awards for the previous three KHL regular seasons were all won by wingers: Danis Zaripov, Alexander Radulov and once again Alexander Radulov;
Now take a look at the MVPs of the three previous play-off campaigns: Alexei Morozov, Ilya Nikulin and Konstantin Barulin – a winger, a defenseman and a goaltender.
This is no coincidence: just looking at the playing positions of the MVPs over the three KHL seasons tells us how strongly regular season hockey differs from the hockey of the play-offs, and how much more vital is the performance of every player in every position in every game.
It is worth lingering on the work of the special teams, since this is indeed the common factor which unites those three MVPs of the Gagarin Cup knockout stages. As a rule, teams in the play-offs devote special attention to nurturing reliable play in defense. When you can rely on your defense it gives you a real hope of getting the right result, of getting additional chances during tough games, and allows you to play to your strengths more effectively. In situations where most teams are playing unselfishly and highly disciplined in defense, the battle between the special teams often proves decisive. So it should come as no surprise that scoring in power play and killing penalties can tip the balance decisively in your favor. If in the regular season it seems every other coach talks about discipline, then in the play-offs it is the favorite topic of absolutely every coach after any game.
In addition to what we have covered above, the play-offs always raise a raft of questions which only the game itself can answer:
– How many series will produce surprise winners?
– Which team will be the dark horse?
– Will home advantage play a part?
– What will the refereeing be like?
– How much will the special teams affect the results?
– Which player will be the revelation of the play-offs?
– Who will be the biggest disappointment?
– Which team will prove to be the best from the Eastern or Western Conference?
– Who will be the MVP?
– Last but not least, who will win the Gagarin Cup?
And most important of all: a play-off series is like the moment of truth for any team. Four to seven games in which if all does not go according to plan, then your season is finished, leaving you with no chance to put things right. The entire regular season, crammed into two weeks. When they got me ready for my first play-offs in North America, I devised for myself a special attitude to games in the knockout stages. A play-off series is like a single game, lasting 12-21 periods (or even longer), every one of which is vital to the eventual success of your team. In these conditions an awful lot rests on the shoulders of every player who steps out onto the ice, but not every player can always carry such a heavy psychological, physical and emotional burden. For any player and for any team the play-offs are the ultimate test - a trial of skill and stamina, of willpower and character. And this is precisely the reason why I love hockey – the only real show on ice!
Congratulations to all on the climax of the regular season. This will be my last column of the season, as I do not wish to distract you from or interrupt your enjoyment of the play-off games. I would like to thank the Kontinental Hockey League for giving me the opportunity to share my thoughts with you via the official media space of the KHL.
Even I am not always entirely 100% in agreement with a few of the things I have written about in these pages, but sometimes the thought itself is more important than the content and can trigger people into putting a sharper focus on certain questions which have arisen. Thank you to all who have read, considered and discussed the themes I have raised in these columns. I hope you found it all as fascinating as I have!