KHL.ru continues its pictorial chronicle of the IX season of the Championship with a look back at what turned out to be a difficult campaign for Salavat Yulaev Ufa - a club which is used to being among the favorites.
At Salavat Yulaev, the 2016-17 season was marked by an unexpected downturn in results. In the previous campaign, the Ufa Men coasted to ninth in the overall regular championship standings and was a force to be reckoned with in the post-season, reaching the Conference final only to be eliminated by the eventual Gagarin Cup winner, Metallurg Magnitogorsk. This time, the men from the Bashkortostan capital posted their worst regular season showing in KHL history, finishing 15th and only just scraping a place in the playoffs, from which they were promptly knocked out in the first round.
The reversal in fortune was a surprise from a team led by Igor Zakharkin, who as an assistant coach was a two-time world champion and two-time Gagarin Cup winner, and who had seamlessly taken control of the side during the previous season. Not everything in 2015-16 went wrong. The team boasted a formidable offense and had no trouble scoring, but neither did their opponents, and Salavat were shipping goals faster than they were scoring them. At one stage, an extended losing streak suggested that even qualification for the playoffs was in serious doubt.
When the New Year holiday was approaching, Salavat’s form recalled the title of the old Christmas carol, In the Bleak Midwinter, as from the 20th of December to the 3rd of February the team suffered a wretched run of only 2 wins in 17 matches, ending with a 9-game losing streak. To their credit, the Bashkortostan Boys never gave up, and thanks to a win over deadly rival Ak Bars and another over Lada, a berth for the playoffs was secured.
On the bright side, a new star emerged in the Ufa offense. It was not until Salavat’s season was over (at the end of April) that Kirill Kaprizov celebrated his 20th birthday, but when he was put in at the deep end as a partner to highly experienced Swedish forward Linus Omark, the youngster took to the role like the proverbial duck to water. Kaprizov finished the regular season as the team’s top sniper and second highest scorer (beaten only by line-mate Linus) with 42 (20+22) points.
We cannot reflect on the 2016-17 campaign without a mention of Ufa’s last line of defense, which was such a hot topic for discussion among fans and pundits alike. Salavat’s first-choice goaltender, Niklas Svedberg, struggled to find consistency, and his form often deserted him at crucial moments. His understudy, Andrei Gavrilov, brought back some stability to the side and showed admirable coolness in adversity – even calmly sipping from a bottle of water while his goal was under attack.
Then came the playoffs, and an early end to Salavat’s season. As in the previous year, the Eastern Conference quarter-final paired the Ufa Men with their “Green Derby” rivals, Ak Bars. Salavat had prevailed in 2015-16, but the Kazan Men took their revenge and sealed a 4-1 series win. The final score was harsh on the Ufa team – in every game, the winning margin was just one goal (curiously, four of the five matches ended 2-1) and the fifth and final game had to be settled in overtime.
Salavat Yulaev was one of many KHL clubs to mark a significant milestone in 2016, namely its 55th birthday. A highlight of the anniversary celebrations was the regular season game against Dynamo Moscow, staged in Ufa as a retro-match featuring players and jerseys from days gone by. They have an undeniably glorious past, and are experiencing an undoubtedly tricky present, so how do the Ufa faithful feel about 2017-18? They have boundless optimism, of course, and who can blame them? The arrival of a new headcoach, Finnish specialist Erkka Westerlund, a new coaching staff, and several new players all suggest that Salavat Yulaev is eager to face the future.