Traktor Chelyabinsk was the surprise package of last season, topping the regular season championship a year after failing to reach the play-offs. That success, which also saw the team reach the Eastern Conference finals, prompted a raft of speculation about the future of star player Evgeny Kuznetsov (pictured). Keeping the 21-year-old forward at the club, amid reported interest from Washington Capitals, has been a major transfer coup for Traktor – and the youngster has been in good pre-season form, racking up 8 (5+3) points in warm-up games, with Stanislav Chistov just one behind on 5+2.

But good individual performances have yet to translate into good results: a successful tour of Switzerland has been followed by a third-place finish in the four-team “Chelyabinsk Region Cup” and a similar return from this week’s Romazan Memorial Trophy in nearby Magnitogorsk. Observers of the games in Magnitogorsk felt that Traktor played sluggishly at times, with head coach Valery Belousov agreeing that his players had been too timid at times, particularly against Metallurg.

However, Belousov put that down to the hard work his squad had done in preparation for the big face-off, and insisted that a spot of fatigue now would be quickly forgotten once the season gets underway. “We done a lot of hard work, on the ice and off it, and not everyone have recovered from that,” he told Sovietsky Sport. “By the start of the season everybody will be ready.”

As well as Kuznetsov and Chistov, opposing defenses will need to be wary of Juhamatti Aaltonen, a Finnish forward who has made the short journey from Magnitogorsk. He had 22 goals and nine assists in the regular season last time out, and the injury that ruled him out of Magnitka’s play-off against Avangard was seen as a key factor in ending Metallurg’s hopes.

In defense, reliable goaltender Michael Garnett continues as first choice but the D-men will see some changes. Out go Raymond Giroux and Alexander Ryazantsev, and in comes Atlant’s Vyacheslav Belov.

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