The Conference finals are underway – and this season is set to be the tightest ever. With one series already booked for a game seven decider and another poised at 3-2, we’re guaranteed a minimum of 13 games to determine the Conference finals. That’s happened before, but not since 2013. If Salavat Yulaev defeats Avangard in game six of the Eastern final, though, we will both Conference Finals go the full distance for the first time in KHL history.
Competitive series have been a theme of this year’s playoffs. In the first round we saw five of out eight series require at least six games to finish, with Barys and Torpedo going all the way to game seven.
In the Western Conference, the final series between CSKA and SKA has, as expected, turned into a classic. Nikita Gusev’s goal in the third period of Sunday’s game tied up the series at 3-3 and sends us to a winner-takes-all showdown in Moscow on Tuesday. It’s the first time since 2015 that the Western final has gone to seven games: on that occasion the same two teams battled it out with SKA making history as it recovered a 0-3 deficit to win through to the Gagarin Cup final.
In the East, it’s a battle between two teams looking for a long-awaited return to the grand final. Salavat Yulaev lifted the Gagarin Cup in 2011 but has not been back to the final since. The following year saw Avangard go all the way to game seven before losing out to Dynamo Moscow in the main event. Now, these two famous names are closing on a return to the final: Avangard could seal the deal Monday with victory in Ufa, but Salavat Yulaev has already survived one round in the last-chance saloon, snatching a 3-2 victory in double overtime in Saturday’s game five to keep the series alive.
The ultimate outcome of the Eastern Conference final could well rest with the performance of Salavat Yulaev’s top line. Joonas Kemppainen, Linus Omark and Teemu Hartikainen have been in blazing form throughout post season. Hartikainen leads the overall scoring race with 21 (8+13) from 16 games, Omark is among a group of three players on 18 points tied for second place in the charts. Kemppainen, meanwhile, has 10 goals, tying for the top goalscorer with Avangard’s Sergei Shumakov. The Finn has five game-winners on his account though, the best in the playoffs. Together, the Ufa trio has generated 53 (22+31) points in 16 games and, not surprisingly, leads the way on the plus/minus rankings.
If it’s high-octane scoring that has illuminated the action in the East, the Western Conference final could well go down to a goaltending duel. If so, CSKA’s Ilya Sorokin is the man whose form might just tip the scales in his team’s favor. The 23-year-old has more shut-outs (3) than anyone else in post season and his GAA of 1.27 is the best in the playoffs. His save percentage of 94.3 is bettered only by Salavat Yulaev’s Juha Metsola (95.3). So far, he’s played all but 15 minutes of CSKA’s playoff campaign, making him both the busiest and most effective goalie in the competition.