SKA’s imperious march to the Gagarin Cup Final has been illuminated by some impressive offense – but anchored by some very solid defense. Patrik Hersley, a Swedish international who arrived in Petersburg early this season after moving on from Lokomotiv, picked up the KHL’s award for the best D-man in the Conference Finals after helping to sweep his former club with 2+2 in four games and an overtime winner in game one. After enjoying a short trip back home before getting down to preparation for the Grand Final against Metallurg Magnitogorsk, the 30-year-old took time to tell KHL.ru about coping with Mozyakin, working with Oleg Znarok and finding ways to win the big games.
Congratulations on reaching the Gagarin Cup Final. Were you surprised that you only dropped one game in three rounds of playoff hockey?
Patrik Hersley: Yes and no. I think the last round, especially, was never a 4-0 series. Those were all tough games and I think it was a little bit lucky that we got it done in four games.
It feels like SKA has become very good at finding ways to win in those tight games – like coming back from 2-4 in the first game against Loko to force overtime and win it?
Patrik Hersley: Yeah, we have very skilled players, they can turn games around on their own. If the first line scores in one game, the second line contributes in the next and sometimes even the third and fourth lines get the goals. Different guys are popping up at different times with big goals. We’re also scoring goals at the right times in games, giving us a mental boost.
In that 2-4 game, we did feel that if we got one goal we could tie the game. I know we needed a little bit of luck to get that fourth goal, but we’ve all been on both sides of that situation – we know it’s possible and luckily, we did it when we needed it.
I know everyone says it, but we really want to win. You can see it in how the guys play, we all really want this cup this year.
‘Znarok is always fun to be around.’
I guess a lot of that desire starts from your head coach, Oleg Znarok. What’s it like working with him?
Patrik Hersley: He’s a great person to have around. He wants to be with us, not above us, and he’s always fun to be around. I don’t know how people view it from the outside, but it’s great working with him. He’s a winner. At some clubs, maybe you get told how you should play, and then get yelled at if it doesn’t work out. Here we are all in it together – we want to win, he wants to win … it’s a great atmosphere.
You started this season at Lokomotiv, and then found yourself playing against your old colleagues in the playoffs. Did that make the Conference Final more difficult for you?
Patrik Hersley: No, it didn’t make things harder for me. If anything, it was a bit easier. All through these games I almost knew what the other team was going to do. I knew which players I had to be careful with, who could come hard at us. They are also a good, tough team but in my opinion we were the better team.
‘Against Metallurg, you have to do things you’re not used to doing’
The final brings another very good team. As a defenseman, how do you prepare to play against Sergei Mozyakin & Co.?
Patrik Hersley: You just have to be 100% focused when the game starts. It’s mental preparation more than physical. You have to be ready to deal with things you don’t usually see, to do things you’re not used to doing.
After so long dominating the scoring in this league, is that line doing something new this season?
Patrik Hersley: I’m not sure if they have anything new, I haven’t played against them this year, and it’s different in regular season anyway, so I couldn’t tell you that.
‘Last year, SKA crushed us on the power play.’
SKA is also full of goals, and Vadim Shipachyov’s line is playing some fantastic hockey. Are you relieved that you don’t have to try to stop them?
Patrik Hersley: [Laughs] Yeah, I was on the other side in the playoffs last year. We matched them better in 5-on-5, but they crushed us on the power play. The other teams know what they are trying to do, but they still find a way to make the plays. There’s a lot of skill there, and an above average reading of the game; the passes they make, the chances they create.
And you’ve chipped in with a few goals from the blue line yourself?
Patrik Hersley: For me it’s been quite a change to get these opportunities (to score), I haven’t really had that before. It’s just unbelievable to be on a team, on a line, and play with that kind of talent. Chances are coming to me in a way that’s never happened before.
Finally, there’s been some talk about a new team joining the KHL next season and some people have suggested either a Swedish club or a second organization in St. Petersburg would be good. As a Swede playing in Petersburg, what do you think those might offer?
Patrik Hersley: I’ve not heard much. I know there was some talk about a Swedish team last year but there’s been nothing since. I seems our Swedish Federation is against a team going to the KHL so I don’t see how it can happen. But it would be fun to have, and I think it would be good for hockey in Sweden. It’s helped hockey in Finland, with Jokerit joining. Especially in that first season, lots of people were watching the games, they got a good local fan base.
In Piter, I guess it’s a little bit similar. Maybe there isn’t an anchored fan base for a new team, I don’t know who would go and watch, but it would be interesting to see.