Nizhny Novgorod (17:00)
On Wednesday, the KHL Gagarin Cup playoffs’ second round will start in the Western Conference.
A Moscow derby is always good in the playoffs, isn’t it? It may sound strange, but it will be only the third time that we’ll have such a Moscow showdown in the KHL postseason. Dynamo won both times, in 2009 and in 2013, conceding just one game overall to the Red Army. In 2019, however, CSKA is the front runner, and it won’t be easy for the Blue-and-Whites to face such a solid team. All things considered, it doesn’t mean that Dynamo doesn’t have chances. As shown in the first round against Jokerit, it’s hard to score on Alexander Yeryomenko when he turns playoffs mode in, as confirmed by the two Finals’ MVP awards he won when Dynamo lifted consecutive Gagarin Cup in 2012 and 2013.
On the other hand, CSKA steamrolled their way to the second round with an easy sweep of Vityaz, which wasn’t a rival for the Red Army. In the playoffs, no contest is a walk in the park, but CSKA was too much for Vityaz, who couldn’t compete in class in spite of a not-so-bad roster. Ilya Sorokin is no worse than Yeryomenko and posted fantastic numbers in the first round (94.7% of saves percentage), and if things don’t go well for him, he has Lars Johansson ready to step up and backstop the team. For Dynamo, Ivan Bocharov is a solid backup goalie, but he’s not in the same category as the other three netminders. CSKA has a superior roster almost everywhere, but in the playoffs, a team needs more than good players to advance.
Both teams feature excellent lineups, and it is expected that the series will be played at a high level and fast pace. Dynamo should pay attention to the penalties and play a very disciplined game, as CSKA is currently the third best team in the league for powerplay realization, and the presence of players like Kirill Kaprizov and Mikhail Grigorenko is undoubtedly a huge factor for this. On the other hand, Dynamo can boast one of the top one-two punch in the League in Shipachyov and Kagarlitsky, and many other players stepped up in the series against Jokerit, like Patrick Zackrisson and Ivan Igumnov. A long series may be ahead of us.
Differently from the Moscow showdown, the SKA and Lokomotiv encounter is a classic in the KHL playoffs. St. Petersburg and Yaroslavl are at their fourth consecutive clash in the postseason, and while Lokomotiv managed to win the very first series, it’s been three years that SKA has the upper hand. Both teams win in the first round with a 4-2 score, and both had more than expected difficulties in getting past their opponents. SKA was sensationally down 0-2 after two games but managed to rally and go through the next round mostly thanks to the class of its best players. Lokomotiv faced fierce opposition in HC Sochi, but they managed to win after a great showing in a tight fifth game. The Railwaymen’s win, however, had a steep price as they lost leading defenseman Staffan Kronwall for the remainder of the season for a low body injury. His loss could be compensated by the return of Petri Kontiola, who suffered from an injury on February 18 in the last regular season game against SKA.
The Army Men won four consecutive games against Spartak Moscow and had a good momentum shift after the first two matches. On the verge of a dramatic first-round exit, the team led by Ilya Vorobyov found some extra resources in David Rundblad and skated past the fierce Muscovites with Nikita Gusev and Pavel Datsyuk showing their magic in the most needed moment. Different players stepped up for St. Petersburg, including Sergei Plotnikov, who other than scoring a fundamental game-winning goal in game six, leads the League in the playoffs with 26 hits.
Both teams feature excellent options in goal. Interestingly, St. Petersburg and Yaroslavl opted for the same concept of having a young Russian goaltender flanked by a proven international veteran. It’s not easy to judge whether Shestyorkin and Hellberg played better than Konovalov and Salak so far, but the Czech Lokomotiv goalie got back to his finest hockey in the last two games in the series against Sochi, and such a strong performance can give courage and an extra boost to his team.
The two teams play a very different style, and the clash of the coaches will be no less crucial than the battles on the ice. Just looking at the names, SKA looks like the team to beat, but Lokomotiv is a well-oiled machine with a great commander on the bench, and it won’t be easy for the Army Men to defeat them. This series is open to any outcome.
Playoffs fun will be back in the Western Conference tomorrow, March 13.