It’s Conference Semi-final time, and the action is hotting up. In the West, we get underway on Wednesday. Here’s a look at the background to SKA’s latest clash with Dynamo Moscow.
SKA vs Dynamo is one of the defining rivalries of the playoff era. It’s a battleground that has forged champions – three of the four previous playoff series between the two have supplied the eventual Gagarin Cup winner. It’s a battleground of old and new – Dynamo, Russia’s oldest hockey club and first national champion representing history and tradition; SKA, an also-ran in the Soviet era, is one of the new Russia’s wealthiest and most prestigious clubs. It’s a battleground between historic rivals – Moscow, which likes to view itself as heart of Russian power; Petersburg, the nation’s cultural capital, deliberately poised to bridge the gap between east and west. That’s a whole lot of history for a hockey game.
But this season, it just got bigger. Oleg Znarok twice defeated SKA on the way to lifting the Gagarin Cup with Dynamo. Along that journey, he cemented his reputation as one of Europe’s top coaches; pound-for-pound, perhaps the best at creating a team that more than the sum of its parts. Dynamo and Znarok felt like a good fit, with a head coach who places teamwork and commitment ahead of flamboyant skills taking charge of a club seeking table-topping results from a middling budget. The combination paid off to the tune of two championship wins, and Znarok was put in charge of Team Russia.
The rivalry continued. SKA defeated its Moscow foe as Vyacheslav Bykov brought the country’s top hockey prize to Petersburg for the first time ever in 2015. But Bykov stepped down, and after a frustrating season Znarok was persuaded to combine his Russia job with the SKA role. It’s not been easy: having previously worked at clubs where the locker room was short of big-name players, SKA’s stellar roster presented a new challenge. Meanwhile, fans in Petersburg – and indeed the club’s owners – expect success and style in equal measure. It’s a demanding environment – just ask Milos Riha, who was notoriously fired as head coach with his team on top of the KHL table.
Znarok has coped magnificently, tying on points with regular season champion CSKA despite missing most of September on World Cup of Hockey duty in Canada. He’s also found time to lead a young, experimental Team Russia to Euro Hockey Tour victory while Petersburg has thrilled to SKA setting new goalscoring records in the KHL. Managing big-name players has not been a problem, either: Ilya Kovalchuk, scratched from the roster in last year’s playoffs, has been revitalized this time round. Pavel Datsyuk has added his magic after returning from Detroit, while the ever-improving Vadim Shipachyov and Evgeny Dadonov go from strength to strength.
In Moscow, meanwhile, Dynamo’s climb to third in the Western Conference went rather under reported. Early in the season the Blue-and-Whites struggled for consistency, and at one point went a whole month without winning a game in regulation. There was even a hint that the team might miss the playoffs for the first time ever. But 2017 brought a huge improvement for Sergei Oreshkin’s men – a 14-2 record since New Year’s Day, followed by a gritty 4-1 series win over Torpedo. Dynamo and Torpedo went to overtime in four of those games, but Oreshkin’s team had the edge. It suggests that Oreshkin is re-establishing something of the spirit of the Znarok years in the Dynamo locker room – and now he has the chance to prove it against the man himself.
The series starts on March 8 in St. Petersburg, with an early face-off at 1700 Moscow time because of the International Women’s Day holiday. March 10 sees game two in Piter, before the action moves to Moscow on March 12 and 14. If needed, further games will be on March 16 (Petersburg), March 18 (Moscow) and March 20 (Petersburg)