After defeating Avtomobilist with a 4-1 score, Ufa climbed to the conference finals for the fifth time in its history. In the first two rounds, Salavat Yulaev could mostly count on three factors. The first one is the incredible play of the first line. Ufa’s Nordic players showed great poise and astonishing chemistry as they scored most of the goals in the wins over Metallurg Magnitogorsk and Avtomobilist. Second, Juha Metsola. The Finn netminder was called by Yekaterinburg’s coach Andrei Martemyanov “the best goalie in the league” and not surprisingly leads the League in saves percentage with 96.3% and is second only to Ilya Sorokin in goals-against average with 1.23. Third, the line of Alexander Kadeikin, Vladimir Zharkov, and Vyacheslav Solodukhin, who shadowed Sergei Mozyakin and Nigel Dawes in the first two rounds.
The team plays a very disciplined game both in offense and defense and is a strong candidate to be one of the best teams in having a chance against Avangard’s suffocating forechecking. Teemu Hartikainen is currently the League’s leader with 14 (6+8) points, tied with SKA’s Nikita Gusev, while Joonas Kemppainen is tied at second for goals scored, with seven. Vladimir Tkachyov is also in good shape and is ready to provide some much-needed secondary scoring should the Hawks manage to keep the Nordics out of the scoresheet.
In Balashikha, the Hawks can also watch at the series with optimism. The team had an outstanding showing against Barys in the conference semifinals, where they needed only five games to get rid of the fierce opposition. Avangard showed a disciplined game, with players flourishing in a stable environment that allowed for exploits like Maxim Chudinov’s crazy shots or Andrei Stas’ memorable goal in game three.
In goal, Igor Bobkov has been instrumental for Avangard and currently leads the League with two shutouts (tied with CSKA’s Ilya Sorokin and Avto’s Jakub Kovar). Import players have a significant role in Balashikha too. Perhaps not as big as for Salavat Yulaev, but Taylor Beck and Cody Franson have been red hot against Astana, both producing seven points in the series, and Ville Pokka is one of the unsung heroes of these playoffs so far.
The Eastern Conference is going to have yet another exciting series with the Avangard and Salavat Yulaev clash. The series promises to be long and difficult to predict. Both teams conjugate excellent forwards and strong defensive commitment – it’s not a case if the top five players for blocked shots (Ville Pokka, Zakhar Arzamastsev, Maxim Chudinov, Alexei Semenov, and Artyom Sergeyev) belong to either Avangard or Salavat Yulaev). In the regular season, Salavat Yulaev won the first clash with Solodukhin, Zharkov, and Kadeikin producing the game-winning goal. In the three next contests, Avangard got the upper hand, with two 1-0 and a crazy 5-4, SO win. Unfortunately for the fans of both teams, top Russian forwards Ilya Mikheyev and Anton Burdasov will have to watch the series from the stands.
The Eastern Conference finals between Avangard Omsk and Salavat Yulaev Ufa will kick off next Friday in Balashikha.