The Muscovites finally broke the tradition dictating that the winner of the regular season can’t triumph on the playoffs. In the previous ten seasons, no club was able to capture both titles. The Red Army has thus deservedly won its first championship since 1989. The only opponent to have a real chance to defeat them was SKA St. Petersburg. The Army derby needed seven games to find a winner.
In the final stage, CSKA got the best out of Avangard with the minimum of four necessary games. The hardest-fought match was the fourth one in Balashikha when the Hawks were up 2-0 and looked like they could get their first win. However, the Red Army managed to rally back, tying it up at three minutes to the final horn. In OT, Maxim Mamin clinched the win for CSKA.
During the season, CSKA looked like a machine without weak spots. In light of this consideration, it’s hard to pick a single player. Mikhail Grigorenko, Kirill Kaprizov, Mat Robinson, Linden Vey, Konstantin Okulov: each of these players emerged in different moments. However, if considering the whole season and trying to elect the most consistent effort, Ilya Sorokin comes in handy.
The goalie is always a critical role in hockey. And Sorokin was ideal. He didn’t have to face constant pressure in each game like his Ufa colleague Juha Metsola. CSKA didn’t leave much room in the defensive zone, and sometimes it’s harder to goalies to stand up and save their team when the puck is continuously in the opposition’s zone. But Sorokin delivered. In the decisive moment, Sorokin stopped most of Avangard’s efforts, without allowing the opposition to get the ball rolling. The result was two shutouts, a record-breaking shutout series of 138 minutes and the deserved title of MVP of the Gagarin Cup playoffs.
An international coach is always expected to be better than his domestic counterparts and deliver right away. Canadian Bob Hartley, hired last spring by Avangard Omsk, showed that he knows his stuff. The bench boss has an impressive CV with triumphs in the NHL and in the Swiss National League. He could add some hardware in the KHL as well if it weren’t for CSKA. The Red Army spent a few years on building and developing this year’s winning roster, and it’s tough for a coach to get in the League and succeed in his first year.
The Hawks had a busy offseason, considering the management changes and the move from Omsk to Balashikha due to its home arena’s problems. It wasn’t easy to assemble a team in this situation, but Hartley did a fantastic job and returned the organization in its role of a contender. The Hawks will be among the teams to beat for next season’s Gagarin Cup.
The fans’ interest is an objective way to measure the public’s involvement in a league. When talking about the Gagarin Cup playoffs, the tickets weren’t cheap; it’s the most awaited time of the season. And in the postseason, there was much of interest for the fans: the reigning champion, Ak Bars Kazan, suffered from a first-round, four-game exit. The attendance saw spectacular series when Barys faced Torpedo, and Avangard battled against Salavat Yulaev. CSKA and SKA fought for seven tight games. Only in the Gagarin Cup finals, the suspense was a little less as Avangard couldn’t defeat the Red Army. But for the rest, this year’s playoffs were among the best in the League’s history.
The fans flooded the gates in most of the games, and the League was only some 3,500 spectators short of a new attendance record: This year, the matches were attended by 692,697 fans, while in 2011, the total summed up to 696,169. If it weren’t for Omsk’s problems with its arena, a new record would be settled. However, the average attendance was a record one with 8,658 fans.
Nikita Gusev had an incredible season, with 82 (17+65) points in 62 regular-season games and 19 in 18 postseason clashes – even if he couldn’t break Sergei Mozyakin’s record (85 and 109 in total). In the playoffs, the second best-scoring player of his team, Sergei Plotnikov, had five points less. No other KHL player was as dominant in the history of the League. He also set a record for single-season assists, with 62, beating Alex Radulov’s 60 helpers he had eight years ago. Gusev showed that if a player works hard, he can improve each season.
Since the 1940s, no other hockey game in Russia can boast such a large attendance as it was on December 22, 2018. The fans that flooded the gates of the Gazprom Arena will remember that excellent game for long. It was an incredible experience, with the only disappointed people being SKA’s fans, as their beloved team lost 1-4 to their Moscow rivals.
The game in St. Petersburg showed that outdoor games have a high potential in the KHL, and in the future, it can be even better. Hopefully, the League will see this kind of games in other cities and with other teams.
The first-ever experience of regular-season games in Western Europe was a positive one. The league scheduled two games in Vienna, Austria (in October), and two other in Zurich, Switzerland (in November), and everything was very good for a first-time event. CSKA and SKA’s stars showed the League’s face from the best side. The only negative thing is that only one game was a tight one. Dinamo Riga had a great effort against SKA but lost the game 1-3. In the other games, the scores were different. In particular, Slovan Bratislava had a hard time, losing 0-9 and 0-7. The League promised changes for future events, and games between CSKA and SKA in Paris or Hamburg may be an excellent showcase for the KHL.
The All-Star Week in Tatarstan was organized at a very-high-level as the League, and the organizing committee managed to shed new life into this event. It isn’t always easy to find new ways to capture the interest of the public, and not all the ideas come up as successful.
The event started with a fantastic opening ceremony, which was probably the best in the history of the All-Star Game. The rest of the event was memorable too with the sellout of the local Tatneft Arena, Mathew Maione’s singing exhibition and Zinetula Bilyaletdinov’s SO attempt.
The match itself and the skills show showed new, capturing emotions. Moreover, the teams’ jerseys were fitted with chips paired with sensors installed throughout the arena to give the fans new metrics at both the facility’s scoreboard and the TV broadcast. In the KHL’s app and website new stats appeared, like what team skated the most distance, what players were faster or whose shot was the strongest. It’s great to see new technologies implemented in hockey. And in the future, it will become as natural as lace up the skates or tape the stick.
The season’s top surprises came from East, as Avtomobilist finished the regular season on top of the Conference’s standings. The Ural team was better than Kazan, Magnitogorsk, Omsk, and Ufa. They started the season with 18 straight wins, and while they lost some pace as the season went on, Avtomobilist gathered the second-best overall record. Who could imagine al this back in September?
Yekaterinburg gathered better rosters with each season. A good example is the acquisition of leading forward Nigel Dawes. The increased budget didn’t translate in wrongful expenses by the boards. Quite the opposite. The strategy seemed thoughtful. Avtomobilist is making good, gradual progress and for the first time in history won a Gagarin Cup playoffs’ round. In a few years, Yekaterinburg will see a modern arena, capable of holding 12,000 fans. All points toward the fact that Avtomobilist is among the top clubs to stay.
On April 11 night, shocking news reached the Russian media from Kazan. Bench boss Zinetula Bilyaletdinov decided to leave his place as Ak Bars head coach. A huge chapter in the club’s history is finished. The golden age of Kazan is firmly and forever associated with Bilyaletdinov’s name. The coach, who turned 64 in March, worked in the team for 14 years, with a short break to coach Team Russia. Under his guide, Kazan won four titles, one in the Superleague (2006) and three in the KHL (2009, 2010, and 2018). Only Oleg Znarok managed to achieve the same result in the League, having won three Gagarin Cups with Dynamo Moscow and SKA.
Separating Bilyaletdinov and Ak Bars is merely impossible. His successor will always be compared to him. The bench boss doesn’t exclude his return. However, no one can know when and how. For some reasons, it looks like he didn’t say his last word in the hockey scene yet. In what exactly is he worse than Vladimir Krikunov, who’s five years older than him, is full of energy and, according to the latest rumors, will continue to work at Dynamo Moscow?