Continuing our review of the KHL’s nine previous campaigns, we reach the third season. More big names come over from the NHL and – for the first time in decades – teams from North America cross the Atlantic to play in Russia and Latvia. Ak Bars finally loses a playoff series, and Vyacheslav Bykov takes advantage.
The League’s membership changed slightly. Problems with Lada Tolyatti’s arena and finances pushed the team into the second-tier VHL, where it remains until 2015. The previous year’s Gagarin Cup finalist, MVD, merged with Dynamo Moscow and played under the Dynamo name.
Three new teams – Ugra Khanty-Mansiysk, Lev Poprad and Budivelnyk Kiev – were accepted into the league, but in the event only Ugra was able to take its place.
Ambitious SKA St. Petersburg pushed the boat out, bringing two NHL stars back to Russia. Forward Maxim Afinogenov and defenseman Denis Grebeshkov both crossed the Atlantic amid great fanfare. The pair had represented Russia at the 2010 Olympics, and played a role in the country’s recent World Championship victories. Afinogenov even became the face of the season’s marketing campaign for one of the KHL’s biggest sponsors, Megafon.
Other star arrivals that summer included Dominik Hasek, the hero of the Czechs 1998 Olympic gold, who joined Spartak. Slovakia’s inspirational captain Pavol Demitra swapped Vancouver for Yaroslavl, while prolific Czech forward Roman Cervenka joined Avangard and promptly fired his way to the top of the regular season goalscoring charts.
For the first time in the KHL era, the NHL sent teams to the former USSR to take on local opposition. Two exhibition games were staged, first in St. Petersburg on October 4, where SKA beat the Carolina Hurricanes 5-3, then in Riga two days later, where the Phoenix Coyotes beat Dinamo 3-1. The games rekindled memories of the great NHL-USSR Super Series confrontations of old, last seen in 1991 when CSKA and Dynamo Moscow headed to North America. In the intervening years, the only Trans-Atlantic match-up took place in October 2008, when the New York Rangers beat Metallurg Magnitogorsk 4-3 in Berne.
The season also saw the first KHL game take place in Western Europe. SKA and Spartak were both involved in the Spengler Cup in Davos in late December, and arranged to play their regular season meeting in the Swiss resort during the build-up to the competition.
The Opening Cup went to Dynamo, who stepped in to replace MVD in the curtain-raiser. Following the merger between Dynamo and MVD, Oleg Znarok was behind the bench in Kazan once again and he got a measure of revenge for his Gagarin Cup defeat by winning 3-1 over Ak Bars.
The new-look Dynamo, despite shedding many of its star names, went on to have a good regular season and eventually finished second in the Western Conference. But the regular season title went to Avangard, with Czech duo Roman Cervenka and Jaromir Jagr scoring freely while Finnish goalie Karri Ramo celebrated 33 wins. Free-scoring Salavat Yulaev topped the goal charts, firing an impressive 210 markers in 54 games. Alexander Radulov’s 20+60=80 points would remain a KHL record until 2017, strike partner Patrick Thoresen was second on the scoring charts with 65.
In the playoffs, the Western Conference proved full of surprises. Dynamo fell at the first hurdle, beaten by a Dinamo Riga roster full of players familiar to Znarok from his role as Latvia’s head coach. Then, in round two, Atlant recovered from 1-3 in the series to shock SKA and progress to a showdown with Lokomotiv. The Moscow Region team, boasting the talents of Sergei Mozyakin and Jan Marek up front, won the first three games to take control of the series, and was just five seconds away from wrapping it up in five before losing in overtime to an Ivan Tkachenko goal. Game six left no doubt: Atlant won 8-2, Oleg Petrov scored a hat-trick, and for the second season running, an unheralded team from the outskirts of Moscow was heading to the grand final.
Atlant’s opponent would be Salavat Yulaev. Vyacheslav Bykov’s team continued to score freely in the playoffs and cut down on the defensive generosity that undermined some of its regular-season play. That proved crucial in the second round, as Ak Bars lost a playoff series for the first time in KHL history. Salavat shut-out the men from Kazan once, and twice more restricted them to a solitary goal en route to a 4-1 series win. Another big defensive performance earned a 1-0 victory in game seven of the Eastern Conference final, edging out Magnitka to set up Bykov’s first Gagarin Cup final.
The clash was short-lived: Salavat scored after 60 seconds of game one and that rather set the tone for the contest. Atlant battled hard, taking that opener to overtime, but could not find a way to get ahead of the men in green. Salavat Yulaev won the series in five; to this day, no team has ever managed a Gagarin Cup final sweep.