Familiar foes clash again as CSKA and SKA meet in the Western Conference finals. Moreover, since the 2016-2017 season, the two St. Petersburg and Moscow sides have met annually in this stage of the Gagarin Cup playoffs. The only exception was the 2020 playoffs, when only the first round took place because of the pandemic.
However, having SKA and CSKA reaching the Conference finals this season was certainly not a foregone conclusion, if not a sensation. Before the start of the regular season, it seems that experts and journalists had more faith in Lokomotiv and Dynamo Moscow than they did in CSKA, which unexpectedly had a new head coach. SKA was not perceived as a clear favorite in the West either.
All the more interesting is how SKA and CSKA changed and gained strength over the course of the season. The St. Petersburg franchise made a lot of noise on the transfer market with the signing of, for example, Nikita Gusev and Mikko Lehtonen, and after the New Year they announced the appointment of Roman Rotenberg as the team’s head coach. CSKA changed their coach before the start of the season. Sergei Fedorov’s coming on the bench was a surprise at first, but during the season the legendary center proved that he too can progress as a coach and achieve excellent results. As a result, by the start of the playoffs both CSKA and SKA were back in high places and in the playoffs they were virtually flawless.
SKA blew past Dinamo Minsk and defeated Spartak – first they had a blowout loss, but then went on to win four straight. Not everything was perfect, but at the right moments, SKA drew on its reserves and was one step ahead of its opponents.
Sergei Fedorov's CSKA is yet to lose in this year’s playoffs: 4-0 against Lokomotiv, and 4-0 against Dynamo Moscow. Of course, the team has also had trouble in those series, but only sporadically, like in the fourth game against Dynamo when the Blue-and-Whites led 3-0, but CSKA managed to achieve victory in regulation time.
In the conference finals, both teams will try to cause each other not temporary, but permanent problems. It will be all the more interesting to watch how the two sides, led by debutant coaches, adapt to the ever-changing conditions of the playoff battle.
Nikita Gusev and Andrei Kuzmenko are SKA’s main stars. Both posted solid stats against Minsk and both scored game-winning goals against Spartak. Each of them now has 11 points (5+6 and 6+5, respectively). Konstantin Okulov (4+4) and Vladislav Kamenev (2+6) are CSKA’s leading scorers after two rounds, with 8 points each.
Goaltenders, who had excellent playoff performances for both teams, will also play an important role. SKA’s Lars Johansson became the best goalie in the regular season in almost all statistical indicators, and he is holding his own in the playoffs as well – with 92.3% and a goals-against average of 1.87. Ivan Fedotov, the leader of CSKA’s goaltending squad, faced more shots (259 vs. 209) and his stats are even better – 94.2%, 1.64. No one will be surprised if one of the goalies becomes the main hero in a couple of games in the series.
By the way, SKA and CSKA met three times in the 2021-2022 season, with the teams getting the most advantage from their home rink. CSKA won both games in Moscow (4:0, 3:1), while SKA won in Saint-Petersburg (3:2 OT). Will home rink advantage make itself felt in the playoffs as well? We’ll find out soon enough!