It’s all eyes on Tatarstan as the KHL’s festival of hockey gets started. In regular season action, three teams booked their playoff places and our World Junior stars came home from Canada.
Last week Kirill Marchenko was helping Russia to World Junior bronze in Canada. This week, his goal helped to secure the win for Team West in the Junior Hockey League’s Challenge Cup in Nizhnekamsk. More than 5,000 fans watched a tight, hard-fought clash between the top prospects. Marchenko, of SKA-1946, and Mark Verba (Russkie Vityazi) got the goals, while goalies Nikita Lysenkov and Vsevolod Skotnikov shared 35 saves to frustrate the East.
Marchenko, a Blue Jackets draft pick, was one of four players selected to go to Tatarstan for next week’s KHL All-Star game. “I certainly didn’t expect that,” he said. “I thought there were other guys who played better than me on the night. But I’ll be ready for it. It’s going to be great to be a part of it and to experience the atmosphere for myself and I’ll be thrilled to be part of any team there.” Marchenko is joined by Verba, plus Anton Vasiliev of Dynamo St. Petersburg and Arsen Khisamutdinov of Reaktor Nizhnekamsk.
Goals from Canadian imports Tatiana Rafter and Hayley Williams helped Team West to a 4-2 win in the Women’s Hockey League All-Star Game. After three editions of the annual event, the West now holds a 2-1 lead overall. Rafter, a Winnipeg native who joined Gorny St. Petersburg in the summer was also selected to take part in Saturday’s skill show ahead of the KHL All-Star Game, where she will be joined by Adigel Ufa forward Nicol Cupkova. And she’s excited to be part of the growth of women’s hockey in Russia. “It’s great that the KHL is helping women’s hockey,” she said. “It’s giving us a real platform to promote our sport and I hope that it will help girls who are just starting in the game. I don’t know what to expect from the KHL Skill Show, but I’m sure it will be fun.”
All of that was just the prelude to the big show, of course. Next Saturday and Sunday in Kazan, the KHL All-Star Game returns to the ice. First comes the skill show, then, for the third time, a mini tournament between four teams representing the four divisions of the league. The preliminary rosters were set last year, but since then injuries have forced a few changes. Five players – Patrik Hersley, Miika Koivisto, Alexander Khokhlachyov, Nikita Nesterov and Marc-Andre Gragnani – will unfortuately have to sit this one out, but there’s a set of high-caliber replacements coming in. Olympic gold medallists Vladislav Gavrikov and Alexei Marchenko are in for Hersley and Nesterov, while Ilya Zubov of Spartak also gets the call. Vadim Shipachyov, Dynamo’s leading scorer, is another late call-up along with five-time Gagarin Cup winner Danis Zaripov. For the lowdown on all the All-Star excitement, stay across the KHL’s Facebook and Twitter coverage, and check out www.allstarweek.com.
Russia’s Junior stars weren’t limited to All-Star action this week. In the KHL, two more bronze medallists made big contributions. Kirill Slepets returned to Lokomotiv and got his first senior goal for the Yaroslavl team in Sunday’s 4-2 win at Admiral. The 19-year-old, who bagged a hat-trick in the bronze-medal game in Canada, battled his way to the back door to convert a Denis Alexeyev feed and claim the game-winner. Nikita Shashkov also found the net for Sibir, helping his team to a 4-2 win at home to Salavat Yulaev after a run of four losses.
Shashkov wasn’t the only reason for Sibir to follow the World Juniors. The gold-medal game between Finland and the USA sparked some friendly rivalry between two of the teams imports, Jukka Peltola and Shane Prince. After the Finns won the big prize, American forward Prince had to pay the price: at Sibir’s next training session he went to work in a Team Finland jersey.
The past week saw three teams secure their place in the coming post season. CSKA was first to get there, quickly followed by Eastern Conference leader Avtomobilist – which earned its spot on the same day as a 6-0 loss at home to SKA. The following gameday saw SKA, currently second in the West, join the group. In both conferences, the battle to get into the top eight looks likely to go to the wire. In the West, Dinamo Riga is in ninth place, three points behind Vityaz after 48 games. HC Sochi is one point better in seventh, but has played a game more. In the East, it’s shaping up to be a straight fight between Traktor and Kunlun Red Star, with the Chinese team four points down on last season’s defeated conference finalist.