The fifth season of KHL hockey saw the league attract some of the biggest names in the game during the NHL lock-out. It also saw two new countries – Ukraine and the Czech Republic – represented in the biggest competition to date. Despite all the new faces, though, the Gagarin Cup went back to Oleg Znarok and Dynamo Moscow after a successful title defense.
The KHL line-up for this season was bigger than ever, with 26 teams from seven countries taking part. Lokomotiv made a welcome return after missing the previous campaign following the Yaroslavl air disaster, while Lev Poprad was replaced by Lev Prague. Slovakian interest was maintained with the arrival of Slovan Bratislava, and Donbass Donetsk became the league’s first Ukrainian representative after moving up from the VHL.
With the NHL undergoing a lock-out that wiped out the first half of the season, KHL clubs were an attractive destination for many players. Several big-name Russian stars took the chance to return home – Alexander Ovechkin (Dynamo Moscow), Ilya Kovalchuk and Sergei Bobrovsky (SKA), Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Bryzgalov (CSKA), Evgeny Malkin and Sergei Gonchar (Metallurg Magnitogorsk) were among the returning stars. There were also plenty of big name imports, despite a rule that limited Russian teams to just one foreign lock-out signing. Zdeno Chara’s spell in Prague was a highlight, Swedish forward Nicklas Backstrom joined Caps team-mate Ovechkin at Dynamo and team USA’s Olympic silver medallist Joe Pavelski had a stint at Dinamo Minsk. In total, 41 NHLers signed deals with KHL teams, although Kris Letang never made it to SKA before the lock-out ended.
Of the lock-out players, Malkin was comfortably the biggest success. He was one of the first to agree a move to the KHL and rewarded Metallurg’s faith with 65 points from 37 games. He formed an effective partnership with Sergei Mozyakin, who was the KHL’s leading scorer once again, with 76 points from 48 games.
Although the lock-out officially ended before the KHL All-Star Game, Kovalchuk and Datsyuk remained in Russia to take part as a thank-you to the fans who had welcomed them during the season. Their presence could not give the Western Conference victory, though.
In an attempt to extend the season for teams that did not make the playoffs, a new competition, the Cup of Hope, was created. Dinamo Riga won the first edition, but attendances were disappointing and the experiment only lasted one further season.
Star names came and went due to the lock-out, but Dynamo found the consistency to shine once again. Oleg Znarok’s team ran into controversy during the regular season, parting company with last year’s playoff star Mikhail Anisin for disciplinary reasons, and struggled to keep up with the enhanced rosters at SKA and CSKA. The Blue-and-Whites eventually came third in the Western Conference.
Lokomotiv’s emotional return took a youthful roster to fourth in the West, and two of the three newcomers – Lev and Slovan – also made the playoffs. Donbass missed out by a single point.
In the East, Ak Bars led the way from Avangard. Traktor nipped into third, while Metallurg’s promising early-season form faded when its lock-out stars headed back across the Atlantic. That cost the Magnitogorsk team in the playoffs, and it crashed out against Salavat Yulaev in the first round.
In post-season, Traktor was inspired by youth. Valery Nichushkin only broke into the team late in the regular season, but announced himself as a star in the making with some spectacular goals in the playoffs. That, coupled with strong scoring from Petri Kontiola, saw Traktor defeat Avangard and Ak Bars on the way to its first Gagarin Cup final – a huge step forward for a team that had been very much an also-ran in the early years of the KHL. It was unexpected, especially after Traktor lost its first two games against Barys before squeaking through the first round in seven. But a powerful offense – its 25 goals in that Barys series was a KHL record for a single playoff round – made it a tough team to stop. Then, against Avangard, Traktor had four shut-outs in five games. Along the way, goalie Michael Garnett set a new record for goalless playoff action, going 211:41 without conceding.
Traktor would face Dynamo, its head coach Valery Belousov coming up against the club he defeated to win his first Russian Super League in 1999. In what proved to be his last playoff campaign before his death in 2015, Belousov had a chance to repeat that triumph. But, to do so, he would need to down the defending champion after the Blue-and-Whites swept Slovan, won a derby series against CSKA 4-1 and repeated its Conference Final win over SKA to return to the grand final. As in the previous season, the team got a lift from a deadline-day trade. Jakub Petruzalek, a Czech forward who had impressed for Amur, headed to Moscow. He went on to score 16 (9+7) points in the playoffs.
He wasn’t the only new face to catch the eye. Alexei Sopin emerged from the VHL, where he was playing with Dynamo Balashikha, to make the big league in time for the Gagarin Cup run. Sopin was never more than a workhorse, but nonetheless made a solid contribution to his team’s success.
In the Grand Final, Dynamo opened with two tight home victories. Traktor responded with a 3-1 success at home, built on two-point shows from Deron Quint and Yegor Dugin. Then came the decisive performance. Dynamo goalie Alexander Yeryomenko, MVP in last year’s playoff, delivered a game-winning display in Chelyabinsk. With 25 saves, he frustrated the host; Petruzalek found the net at the other end and Dynamo returned to Moscow with one hand on the trophy.
Traktor refused to yield: three goals in the first nine minutes stunned Dynamo. A fight-back tied the game, but Traktor won it thanks to Andrei Kostitsyn’s goal with five minutes left.
The series returned to the Urals, and another hard-fought encounter. Both teams led in regulation, but finished tied at 2-2 after 60 minutes. Into overtime, and Alexei Tsvetkov grabbed Dynamo’s winner: for the second year running, the Gagarin Cup was coming to Moscow.