The final week of the regular season sees plenty still to play for in the KHL. At the top of the table, SKA and CSKA are set to battle it out for the Continental Cup. Just below them, there’s a scramble to gain home ice advantage at the start of the playoffs, while a clutch of teams anxiously seeks to confirm post-season places. But in the coming days, three games stand out – each likely to play a big role in determining the final shake-down.
Tuesday, 17:00 Moscow time
The ‘Green derby’ between the teams from Ufa and Kazan is always a matter of pride – but this year’s final edition means more than ever for Salavat Yulaev.
Oleg Zakharkin’s team has been in miserable form since the turn of the year, winning just twice as it slipped to eighth place in the Eastern Conference. To make matters worse, even victory in its two remaining games might not be enough to secure a playoff spot, depending on other teams’ results.
The stakes, then, haven’t been so high since the opening round of last season’s playoff. On that occasion the teams went to a game seven decider before Salavat Yulaev edged a 3-2 verdict to take the series … and the Ufa men need a similar result here. There are some grounds for optimism: one of those two wins in 2017 came in a shoot-out in Kazan on Jan. 5, and the teams’ previous meeting in Bashkiria ended in a 4-2 victory for Salavat Yulaev back in November. Ak Bars also arrives in pretty ugly form, having lost 2-8 to Tatarstan rival Neftekhimik and followed that with a 0-4 loss at Lada in its last two games.
But there are also concerns for Salavat Yulaev, with leading scorer Linus Omark and prolific Finn Teemu Hartikainen both on the injured list. Much could depend on Kirill Kaprizov – a hat-trick hero for team Russia in Sweden at the weekend – inspiring his team to a much-needed victory.
Tuesday, 19:30 Moscow time
Both these teams are hoping for a first-ever visit to the KHL playoffs … but in very different circumstances. For Kunlun, the new Chinese team, a top-eight finish in the East would cap a hugely promising debut season and set down a real marker for pro hockey in Beijing. For Vityaz, meanwhile, making post-season would finally lay the ghost of never having achieved a playoff place despite contesting every KHL season so far.
The teams are not in direct competition, and both are in control of their own destinies, but the battle in both Conferences is so intense that this game will be eagerly followed right across the KHL map, from Helsinki to Vladivostok.
Vityaz’ upturn in fortunes owes much to the work of head coach Valery Belov, back at his former club after many years on the coaching staff at Ak Bars. He’s overseen a renaissance for former NHL star Maxim Afinogenov, and recruited wisely to bring the experience of Alexei Kopeikin and the young talents of Miro Aaltonen to the club. But Belov faces a selection headache in goal – bring back fit-again Finn Harri Sateri, or stick with Igor Saprykin after the youngster impressed in his team-mate’s absence.
For Vladimir Yurzinov’s Kunlun, this season has been a demonstration of how to forge a team out of a disparate group of players. There’s experience – former Dynamo Moscow D-man Janne Jalasvaara and ex-SKA forward Alexei Ponikarovsky have been on three Gagarin Cup-winning rosters between them. But there are also plenty of players who have seized the opportunity to blossom in the KHL this season – leading scorer Chad Rau and goalie Tomi Karhunen are in their debut seasons in the league, while two-way D-man Tuukka Mantyla is on the brink of helping a team to the playoffs for the first time in five KHL campaigns.
Thursday, 19:30 Moscow time
For these teams the equation is simple enough: win your remaining games, and achieve the target. For SKA, three victories will guarantee top spot and wrest the Continental Cup away from CSKA, which won it in the last two seasons. For Sochi, three victories will put the Black Sea team in front of Jokerit and into the top eight, regardless of other results.
The problem, of course, is that one of them has to lose here. On paper, SKA should be too strong – and a 4-0 win in Sochi last month underlines that point. But, with Vyacheslav Butsayev’s roster playing for its survival, and Oleg Znarok not long back from international duty, there could just be an upset on the cards.
If it happens, Sochi will need to find a way of silencing the Dadonov-Shipachyov combination that has been in devastating form of late. The line-mates have contributed a meaty 14 points in the last five games – not bad for a duo often regarded as understudies to the illustrious talents of Ilya Kovalchuk and Pavel Datsyuk. Goalie Konstantin Barulin could have a key role to play here if SKA’s big guns are to be effectively spiked.
But the visitor brings a decent run of form – victorious in its last four outings – and can point to Andre Petersson’s four points in three games as further grounds for optimism. At the start of the season, the Swede was matching the likes of Kovalchuk and Sergei Mozyakin at the top of the scoring charts before injury ruled him out for almost two months. Since his return in early December, Petersson’s form has been patchy, but two goals and two assists in February suggest that his touch might be returning at the perfect time.