KHL.ru keeps on reviewing the 2017/2018 season for the different clubs. Today it’s the turn of HC Sochi. For the southern team, the last season has been undoubtfully a step forward. Even if the season finished early with a first-round exit, the team led by Sergey Zubov showed a pleasant game and an unyielding character.
The 2016/2017 season was the worst in HC Sochi’s brief history as the team didn’t even have a chance to get to the playoffs. This led to the firing of the coach who led the team since its birth, Vyacheslav Butsayev. To substitute Butsayev, HC Sochi hired Sergey Zubov.
During the offseason, the team had a significant facelift, as Ilya Krikunov (top scorer), Oscar Fantenberg, Andre Petersson, Andrei Kostitsyn (top goalscorer), Renat Mamashev and other players left Sochi. New foreign players were signed, and if Casey Wellman and Sean Collins had no problems in adapting to their new teams, Ryan Garbutt was released on October 1st. Then Simon Onerud was traded to Sibir Novosibirsk for a monetary compensation and the team needed to improve its defensive corps. The veteran Alexei Tsvetkov had a good season after moving in from Dynamo. The Sochi team also kept their goaltending line made up of Konstantin Barulin and Dmitry Shikin.
The start of the season was, for HC Sochi, so bad that probably even other teams’ fans remember it. On August 31, Sochi was incredibly defeated by Salavat Yulaev in Ufa with a 3:11 score. However, only two days later, the team not only rehabilitated itself from the huge defeat, but also managed to overpower the future KHL champions Ak Bars Kazan (5:0). This was the biggest defeat of the season for the Kazan team.
Between September and October, the team had a slump. Sochi lost five games out of six and lost games even against outsiders as Lada and Ugra. On October 2, the southern team had a shameful loss at home against Avangard (0:6).
But the unexpected was going to happen: on October 20 the Sochi team managed to do what no one else could, that is stopping the 20-game winning series of SKA St. Petersburg. Moreover, the team led by Zubov managed to win at SKA’s home arena (3:2 OT). After this win, the team started to gradually improve and to win against teams that earlier had the best of Sochi. However, paradoxically, Sochi regularly won against top-teams as regularly they loss precious points while facing outsiders. For example, Sochi defeated twice SKA but also lost twice to Ugra, other than losing three points out of the nine available in the encounters against Lada.
Near the end of the year and at the 2018 start, HC Sochi started slowly climbing up the standings, until on January 19, defeating Jokerit at home, they finally secured a playoffs spot. Soon it was clear that the Finn team will be Sochi’s opponents in the first round of the Gagarin Cup playoffs.
Sochi fans awaited the playoffs mostly with the hope to finally watch the team’s first postseason win. Even if they managed to get to the playoffs twice, both times the series were very short, as Dynamo and CSKA defeated them with a 0:4 score. And finally, on March 3, HC Sochi won its first playoffs game. To achieve this important achievement, Sochi and Jokerit needed to play through four periods of hockey. Only at the third minute of the second overtime Jonathon Blum, who got to Sochi only at the end of December, scored the game-winning goal.
However, this win was the last one for Sochi during the season. Jokerit first won two games with a huge score (2:7), then Sochi had a giant effort to get back in the series, but the Finns managed to close the case. The fourth game was particularly dramatic: Jyrki Jokipakka (another player who was acquired during the season) tied the game up (2:2) at only five seconds to the horn, but during the overtime Pekka Jormakka gifted Jokerit the win. In the fifth game Sochi was up in the score (1:0) until the 57th minute, but then they couldn’t deal with Eeli Tolvanen’s genius. The Finnish starlet tied the game up, then sent Sochi home at the overtime.
One of the most known Russian defensemen, Olympic Champion, two-time Stanley Cup winner, Zubov ended his playing career at SKA, where he started in 2011 his coaching career as an assistant. After the firing of Andrey Nazarov during the 2015/16 season, Zubov was promoted and got to the Gagarin Cup finals. In March 2017 it was announced that he will be the new Sochi head coach in place of Vyacheslav Butsayev.
“Playing a pure defensive or offensive game it’s easy. But you need to play modern hockey, that’s what is important,” Zubov told KHL.ru during a preseason interview. It can be said that this was Zubov’s first complete season as a head coach, from the preseason and to the end. Undoubtedly, Zubov made a good job. He managed to control the team even after the bad start, got the right new players, getting them in the right spot and managed to reach the playoffs. In the postseason, Sochi was a good opponent for Jokerit. It is worth mentioning, that one of Zubov’s assistants was Ivano Zanatta, with whom he worked already at SKA.
“Many of our players gained a very important playoffs experience. This is good for us as it will help us in further developing our team,” Zubov said after the series against the Finns. Two weeks later, the team announced that Zubov will lead the team for another season with an option for the next season.
The first game of the playoffs series between Jokerit and HC Sochi was scheduled for March 3. The guests managed to open the score thanks to Eric O’Dell, who just the day before was appointed as new captain. However, the home team, despite a game misconduct penalty to Steve Moses, not only tied the game up, but also scored the go-ahead goal. The score at the end of the regulation was 2:2, therefore the game had to be decided at the overtime. Four players whistled against HC Sochi gave the Finns some good chances to end the game, but Barulin got a lot of confidence after stopping shot after shot and without allowing a goal in the first overtime. The key event happened at the third minute of the second OT. Andrei Ivanov shot the puck, and Jonathon Blum started fighting to reach it against two opponents. Blunt managed to slightly deflect the puck, disorienting Zapolski, who couldn’t stop it from getting into the net. The refs briefly reviewed the goal just to quickly declare it clean and allowing Sochi to celebrate their first postseason win in its history.
On October 2, Avangard Omsk visited HC Sochi at the latter home arena. Two days earlier, the southern team suffered a home loss against Ugra (3:4 OT) and the fans were awaiting a revenge. However, it was even worse. After a good first period, which however ended with a 0:1 score, the second period was a nightmare. Initially, after a pass by Ansel Galimov from behind the net, the puck ricocheted against a defenseman and went in. At the 38th minute, the score was 5:0 after Galimov’s double. In the third period the teams played less actively, but close to the end of the third period Erik Gustafsson made it a 6:0 game.
Usually, Zubov was very calm during the press-conferences, but this time he was very hard. “Only one and a half lines played for us and I think that many of our players need to watch themselves on the mirror and understand that this is not the way they should play, this was embarrassing for a team like Sochi,” he said.
For the 23-years-old Pavel Padakin this was definitely an incredible season. One year earlier, the young forward, whose pro experience was limited to playing in the North American minor leagues, had his debut in the KHL and started recommending himself as a good forward. But hardly anyone could imagine that he would become one of the top Sochi players, the top-scoring domestic player with 31 (9+22) points and an incredible +/- rating (+21), and a participant to the KHL All-Star Game in Astana. He was also one of the most noticeable players of the event. His spectacular flight with the “Sochiman” suit got the fans on their feet and made the history of the All-Star Game.
Ryan Garbutt got to Sochi with many expectations on himself. The 32-years-old Canadian with a big (302 games) experience in the NHL probably should have been the team’s main force. And he had a good start with a goal in his debut game and a pair of assists in the next two games. But then everything went wrong. More often than not, Garbutt started ending the games with a negative +/- rating and in nine games he only had two points and his first goal remained his only one. As a result, on October 1 Sochi announced to have released the Canadian forward. Interestingly enough, he managed for two other KHL teams during the season, Torpedo and Slovan. But he didn’t have much success there too.