Saint Petersburg (17:00)
Nizhny Novgorod (18:00)
Saint Petersburg (19:30)
The pairing of Kazan and Omsk is perhaps the most awaited in this year’s first round: each of their meetings in postseason games provided cinematic plots, dramatic denouements, and unexpected heroes. In 2009, Kazan’s heroes were Ilya Nikulin and Oleg Petrov; the former dragged Ak Bars from the abyss with 15 seconds left in the game, series and season, while the latter finished off the Omsk club in OT and took the team to the semifinals. Six years later, Kazan goalie Anders Nilsson shut out Avangard three times and decided the outcome of the series. In 2017, Fyodor Malykhin, a strong role player, had his best playoff run, scoring 5 (2+3) points in six games against Omsk.
As it often happens, who won in the past will sooner or later be defeated. This happened to Ak Bars in 2018-2019 and 2020-2021. Moreover, Kazan fans are unlikely to answer about which series was worse for them, if the 0:4 in the first round or 3:4 with an overtime loss in the seventh game in the Eastern Conference finals. Omsk’s head coach Bob Hartley called the game in the 2021 playoffs “worthy of an adaptation,” and it’s hard to argue with that.
In the 2021-2022 season, the teams met three times, with Ak Bars winning each time (3:2, 2:1, 3:1). The last game was held in Dubai, with five thousand spectators. Both teams were unable to avoid losing points during the regular season: Kazan fought with Salavat Yulaev for a place in the top-3, while Avangard simultaneously tried to catch up with them and protect itself from pursuers, such as Siberia and Neftekhimik.
During the break, Ak Bars won their home tournament, defeating Lokomotiv (3:2) and Neftekhimik (6:2), and losing to Severstal (3:4 OT). Dmitry Kvartalnov’s team also played three exhibition games, defeating Neftekhimik again twice (1:0, 4:2) and losing to Sibir (2:3). Avangard played three games during the same period, with a victory against CSKA (2:0), and losses to Dynamo Moscow (1:4) and Spartak (3:5).
There is no clear favorite in this pairing, which guarantees an interesting and bright series. Even more so because both teams have enough players who can put on a show. Avangard’s Arseny Gritsyuk is shining this year, and led Team Russia to the Olympic final with his successful shootout attempt. The 20-year-old forward scored 28 (16+12) points in the regular season, becoming the team’s third-leading scorer and second-leading sniper. Corban Knight stands out as the league’s third leading scorer (18+30 in 47 games) and the KHL’s third-best center on the dots (60.6%). Peter Cehlarik (14+11 in 39 games) made up for the loss of Reid Boucher, especially on the power play with eight goals (second most on the team). The Slovak forward is second only to Oliwer Kaski (10 power play goals) who still holds the bar — second leading scoring defenseman and the league’s best sniper on the blue line with 33 (13+20) points in 47 games.
He is followed by Ak Bars’ Steven Kampfer with 11 goals and 19 assists in 46 games. The American has strengthened the team’s defensive line, providing quality help on offense. Moreover, Kempfer posted a plus-8 difference, which is much different from Kaski (minus-8). Jordan Weal has fit in nicely in his new League with 30 (12+18) points in 36 games. Fans will especially remember his scoring against Avtomobilist. Given last season, a lot will depend on how the international players perform for Ak Bars. A year ago, they disappoint in the series against Avangard, and Dmitry Kvartalnov will hope on more successful play.
However, even in that situation, Ak Bars had a chance to reach the final thanks to the youth’s top-performance: in the seventh game, Artem Galimov, Dmitry Voronkov, and Ilya Safonov scored all the team’s three goals. The first had a solid regular season in 2021-2022 (7+15 in 47 games) and looked good in the exhibitions (4+4). Voronkov was not as outstanding, but he was one of the best players in the current Ak Bars in terms of physical play and effort. The third is still very young, but he’s showing great hockey, and Metallurg, to whom Safonov scored three goals, knows it.
Another important aspect of the upcoming series is goaltenders’ play. Simon Hrubec (92.2% save percentage; GAA 2.19; 5 SO) posted slightly better numbers than Timur Bilyalov (91.6% save percentage, GAA 2.06; 2 SO), but in the playoffs much depends on the energy and help from the defenders. Importantly, Hrubec already has championship experience which will surely help him and the Hawks.
Even the most skillful prognosticators are unlikely to hazard a guess as to the winner Ak Bars and Avangard series — the Hawks will be determined to repeat their path to the Gagarin Cup of last term, while the Kazan franchise dreams of taking revenge for last year’s disappointment. That makes it only more interesting: the series between these teams have never been boring, and there’s sure to be plenty of heat for their upcoming clash.
The series Ak Bars — Avangard plays on Mar 2, 4, 6, 8 and, if necessary, 10, 12, and 14.