For many, the big story in the Western Conference this season hasn’t revolved around the battle at the top of the table between CSKA and SKA. Instead it’s been the journey of Vityaz, perennial strugglers, into the playoff places.
Vityaz, one of the founders of the KHL, had never made it into post-season before. In recent seasons, it had got relatively close, remaining in contention until the new year before fading in the final stages. But for many hockey fans, the team’s biggest claim to fame – or notoriety – was its part in a bench-clearing brawl that forced the abandonment of a game against Avangard after setting a new record for PIMs. A cavalcade of hard-hitting players – ‘enforcers’, if you’re thinking positively; ‘goons’ if you’re less enamored of hockey fights – passed through the Moscow Region, and their antics often overshadowed the role that the club played in the development of young players such as Artemy Panarin, now a major player in the NHL and at international level.
The most change was the arrival of new head coach Valery Belov. A long-time colleague of Zinetula Bilyaletdinov at Ak Bars, there’s little in Russian hockey that Belov hasn’t seen or done – and that includes play-off hockey at Vityaz in the Superleague era. Bringing him back to a club where he has a deep connection, and giving him the freedom to work as head coach in his own right, was a key step.
Belov’s presence had a positive effect on the players he inherited, and none more so than Maxim Afinogenov. Now 37, the forward suddenly hit top form, completing the regular season with 47 (20+27) points, his best ever return since leaving the NHL and joining SKA in 2010. Remaining injury-free, and with his legendary pace seemingly undimmed by the passing years, Afinogenov’s 23-year-old team-mate Miro Aaltonen described him as “a great example for the whole team” in an interview on KHL.ru earlier in the season.
Aaltonen’s arrival was another masterstroke. No relation to the more famous Juhamatti Aaltonen, once of Metallurg Magnitogorsk and Jokerit, and best – if not most fondly remembered – for helping Finland defeat Russia in the quarter-final in Sochi, Miro arrived from Karpat and established himself as an effective center for Vityaz’s first line, scoring 44 points along the way. The club’s oft-overlooked ability to identity and nurture emerging talent delivered once again.
The other key summer signing was very different. Alexei Kopeikin, 33, came from Sibir, where he had captained the team as it improved steadily to become a serious contender in the Eastern Conference. Deemed surplus to requirements in Novosibirsk, he was released … and set about proving his doubters wrong by scoring 20 goals in a season for the first time in his career on his way to a 51-point haul.
Then there was the goaltending. Harri Sateri, in his second season at the club, once again showed his qualities while understudy Igor Saprykin was suddenly thrust into the spotlight as the season came to a close. An injury to Sateri handed Saprykin the starting role from January 7 until February 16, and the 25-year-old rose to the challenge impressively. Vityaz won eight of the 11 games that Sateri missed; Saprykin finished the season with numbers comparable to his colleague.
As Vityaz heads into the unchartered territory of KHL playoff action, it faces SKA as a massive outsider. But head coach Belov insists that his team can cause an upset.
“Every player needs to bring his A game,” Belov said after Saturday’s game against Admiral. “If we do that, we will win games ... and more than one.”