In this David against Goliath series, it looks like Vityaz will have close to zero chances against the Red Army. Differently from last year, Vityaz clinched the last playoff spot – like two years ago – yet once again they are most likely going to finish the season very soon. Alexander Semin had an incredible season for the Moscow Region club, finishing the regular season with 41 (19+22) points in 54 games, his best numbers in the KHL. However, while the team has solid options in all the three departments, it looks like it’s not enough to give CSKA a stiff challenge.
On the other hand, CSKA has several leaders in the different stats – Kirill Kaprizov just won the goal-scoring race with 30 goals, while Sorokin led the League with 11 shutouts, the second-best all-time performance by a KHL goalie after Alexei Murygin’s 13 games without allowing a goal in the 2015-16 season. The Sorokin and Johansson goaltending tandem is probably the best in the League, and several CSKA players finished close to the top in the plus-minus ranking.
At this point, the real question seems to be whether Vityaz will be able to steal one game to the Red Army and avoid a 4-0 first-round sweep, improving the result of its latest postseason appearance in 2017.
SKA may be behind CSKA and Spartak above Vityaz, yet it’s hard to imagine a different outcome if compared to the series above. Especially considering that Spartak lately isn’t showing its best hockey and had a huge blow when Anatoly Nikontsev prematurely ended his season due to an injury. But maybe Spartak just relaxed too much after clinching a playoff spot, and now it’s ready to give SKA a real postseason battle. In the playoffs, goaltending is super-important, and Spartak has an excellent option in Julius Hudacek. The Slovak goalie gathered significant postseason experience at home, and he won’t be scared by SKA’s potent attack. The Muscovites have good options forward with Alex Khokhlachyov, Kaspars Daugavins, and Ilya Zubov among the others, and their chemistry can play a role in the series. Spartak will want to avoid the second 4-0, first-round sweep in a row after losing to CSKA last year.
SKA finished the season as the second seed of the Western Conference, but they have enough firepower to give anyone a good run for their money. KHL star Nikita Gusev had yet another incredible season, winning the scoring race with 81 points and setting a new League’s record with 64 assists in the regular season. In goal, Igor Shestyorkin looked even stronger than last year, and Magnus Hellberg had an impressive 2018-19 campaign.
If Spartak manages to get a game off SKA, it may be considered a success.
Lokomotiv had an excellent campaign this time around, and as such, they will start the series against the Black Sea club as favorites. Lokomotiv has everything needed to succeed: a capable coach, talented players, and solid imports. Being a very young team, the only thing they are lacking is experience. However, in the playoff’s first round talent alone may allow for a fast win and a quick recovery before the second round. Also, a hot goalie can help the team go a long way in the playoff, and rookie netminder Ilya Konovalov had an incredible 2018-19 campaign, with ten shutouts. Other players who had a breakout season include Denis Alexeyev, third scorer of the team with 29 (10+19) points, and Rushan Rafikov, who produced 14 (5+9) points and earned a call to the senior Russian national team for the Euro Hockey Tour. The team’s leaders – Brandon Kozun, Andrei Loktionov, and Alexander Yelesin – confirmed their high level once again as the team is well-prepared for the postseason.
On the shores of the Black Sea, HC Sochi is looking forward to winning their first playoff series, after losing to CSKA, HC Dynamo, and Jokerit in the previous seasons. However, the team has a monumental task in front of itself, and it is unlikely that they will manage to defeat Lokomotiv more than one or two times. The team’s leaders are very experienced, and Swedish newcomer Robert Rosen had a tremendous season, but Lokomotiv plays at a significantly higher level.
This pair will be one of the most exciting series in the playoff, with the potential to become the most interesting encounter and – on paper, at least – the most likely candidate for a seventh game in the Western Conference. Both teams abound in good players, with Alex Grant, Sami Lepisto, Brian O’Neill, and Sakari Manninen from one hand, and Ilya Nikulin, Juuso Hietanen, Vadim Shipachyov, and Dmitry Kagarlitsky on the other side.
Both teams can also count on solid secondary-scoring options, with players like Steve Moses and Miks Indrasis. The only department where HC Dynamo has a clear advantage is goaltending. The tandem Bocharov and Yeryomenko look more experienced, reliable, and consistent than Zapolski and Kalnins.
Considering all of the above, the encounter between Jokerit and HC Dynamo looks incredibly exciting and probably the fans will be pleased with a long series.
The postseason fun beings on February 25, with Lokomotiv facing HC Sochi, and Jokerit meeting HC Dynamo for the first Western Conference clashes.