Big city battles
Moscow’s hockey fans are gearing up for the traditional KHL curtain-raiser – the Mayor of Moscow Cup. It’s the eighth time the contest has pitted Moscow’s KHL teams against their near neighbors from just beyond the outer ring road, and it’s a key milestone for these local rivals as they look to secure local bragging rights and set the standard before the serious action gets underway on Aug. 24.
CSKA will likely be the focus of attention here: last time it was the regular season champion, it goes head-to-head with SKA in the Opening Cup and everyone is keen to see how hard Dmitry Kvartalnov’s men can push for the Gagarin Cup this time out.
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. Meanwhile ex-CSKA players Igor Ozhiganov
and Dmitry Kugryshev
are back in Moscow after impressive form at Sibir last 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.
Spartak, back in the KHL this season, are still getting used to an entirely new roster. But German Titov’s men already have happy memories of playing at the brand new VTB Ice Palace. The Red-and-Whites won the inaugural Arkady Chernyshev memorial last week and would love a repeat success at the same venue. Spartak clinched success in that competition thanks to rigid defence: two successive shut-outs and a total run of 146 goalless minutes was enough to confound the competition and leave Titov admitting that his players had exceeded his expectations.
Dynamo Moscow, meanwhile, have a point to prove after failing to win a single game in the Chernyshev competition. Dynamo fans can be a superstitious bunch – many talk of a ‘curse’ on the soccer team of the same name as its league championship drought stretches on towards a fourth decade – and it’s going to be important to firmly end any sense that the club’s new home is somewhat ‘unlucky’ for the Blue-and-Whites.
Head coach Harijs Vitolins, meanwhile, is quick to remind fans that wins in pre-season count for little when the prizes are handed out next spring. “It hurts when you host a tournament and can’t win a game,” he admitted. “But we’re still getting ready for the season. Our task is to be at our peak when the KHL starts. Our new guys are on the right path to showing the kind of form we’re expecting from them. There’s more competition for places throughout the team and we will be stronger when the real action starts.”
Dynamo’s roster has certainly got younger compared with last season, and Vitolins is likely hoping to inject some hunger into a team that was always competitive but seldom inspiring last time round. Much will be expected of 24-year-old Daniil Tarasov, back in Moscow after a spell in North America with the San Jose Sharks organization. He spent most of last season playing in the AHL, and scored 16+17=33 points in 54 games for Worcester.
The other big addition is Finnish D-man Juuso Heitanen
, a free agent after a good season with Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod. Tarasov will be expected to add some bite to an offense that has said goodbye to Sergei Soin
, Denis Mosalyov
, Alexei Sopin
and Nikolai Zherdev
. Three of them featured in the Muscovites most recent Gagarin Cup triumph – and the class of 2013 has now largely dispersed – while Zherdev’s move to Sochi represents another chance for that mercurial talent to finally find a home for his undoubted skills.
The other incoming players are all, to a greater or lesser extent, gambles on potential. Denis Barantsev
returns to the club after a season with Lada Togliatti and could well become a lynchpin on a blue line that no longer features Janne Jalasvaara
or Roman Derlyuk
. Alexander Avtsin
, a young forward who emerged from the Dynamo youth set-up is back after a year in the VHL at Dizel Penza, while Ansel Galimov
’s form at lowly Metallurg Novokuznetsk earns him a shot at a big club this time out.
The fourth team in the competition is Vityaz from Podolsk. The Moscow Region team, generally an outsider in the KHL, ruffled feathers here by going unbeaten in the competition a year ago. But club president Mikhail Golovkov says he’ll be happy with a high-quality work-out for his team ahead of the new season and isn’t demanding victory at all costs this time around.
The Mayor of Moscow starts on Thursday, August 12. It is played as a round robin competition and concludes on Sunday.