Our review of the season reaches the playoffs. Uniquely, this year there wasn’t a single series that went to game seven … but don’t go thinking anyone found progress easy. Even where teams swept their series, the individual games tended to be hard fought. And, in a season studded with scoring records, it’s no surprise that the 2017 playoffs continued to set new marks for goals and assists along the way.
At first glance, there were few surprises at this stage. Of the eight series across two Conferences, only one – Barys’ victory over Traktor – overturned the end-of-season rankings. But there was still plenty to note.
In the Eastern Conference, playoff hockey went to China for the first time ever as Kunlun Red Star faced defending champion Metallurg Magnitogorsk. Magnitka, as expected, prevailed, but the series produced one of the goals of the season from Kunlun’s Linus Videll and a memorable victory for the Chinese team in Game Four. That 3-1 win on February 28 was a real highlight for the league’s newcomer.
Beijing was also the venue for one of Sergei Mozyakin’s most memorable achievements of a record-laden campaign. His goal in the 39th minute of Magnitka’s 3-2 win on February 26 brought up his 1,000th career point in Russian domestic hockey, a mark never before reached by any player in Soviet or post-Soviet times. Typically, it didn’t take long for the master marksman to start work on his second millennium, assisting on Danis Zaripov’s game-winner.
Elsewhere in the East, the ‘Green Derby’ between Ak Bars and Salavat Yulaev went decisively in favor of the team from Kazan. The 4-1 series sweep led to the dismissal of Salavat head coach Igor Zakharkin. Admiral took two games from Avangard before going out, while fifth seed Barys surprised four-placed Traktor in six games.
In the West, it was all about overtime. Regular season champion CSKA might have swept Jokerit, but the Finns took three of the four games to extras without managing to force a victory. Dynamo Moscow beat Torpedo 4-1, but the series featured five additional periods. Two of those came in game one before Maxim Karpov won it; game five was the only one settled in 60 minutes. Life was less stressful for SKA, which swept playoff debutant Vityaz, and Lokomotiv, which dropped just one game against Dinamo Minsk.
The match-up between CSKA and Lokomotiv provided the shock of the playoffs. The Army Men, fresh from a third straight regular season title, were favorites to overcome a Loko team that had rather more potential than experience. But Alexei Kudashov’s team rose to the challenge to win it in six. The key moment came in Game Four. CSKA was 2-1 up in the series and tied at 1-1 in Yaroslavl as the game went into the third period. Then Loko blasted home four unanswered goals, winning 5-1 and decisively tipping the momentum of the series.
The other pairing in the West saw SKA and Dynamo Moscow come together for the fifth time in six seasons. At the start of that run, Dynamo had the edge, winning in 2012 and 2013 on the way to lifting the cup; subsequently, it’s been the Petersburg team that has dominated. When Maxim Karpov hit an overtime winner for the Blue-and-Whites in Game One, some fans recalled Dynamo’s 2012 triumph. Then, Denis Mosalyov completed a hat-trick in overtime; this time Karpov repeated the trick. But SKA was in no mood to repeat history, powering through the next four games to progress. Even the loss of Pavel Datsyuk, who suffered the first game misconduct of his career and then picked up an injury that ruled him out of the rest of the campaign, could not halt Oleg Znarok’s progress against his former club. For Dynamo, the only small consolation was the fame of defenseman Andrei Kuteikin, who twice scored from the red line in this series after achieving a similar feat against Torpedo in round one. But SKA was able to draw a red line through its rival’s hopes once again.
In the East, Danis Zaripov was the main man for Metallurg. He scored back-to-back hat-tricks in games two and three of the series against Barys, helping Magnitka to a sweep. Moreover, he claimed the title of ‘Hat-trick king’, the first man to get three post-season trebles in the KHL. D-man Chris Lee also set a new record, getting the highest number of playoff assists from a blue liner with two more series to come.
Also in the East, Ak Bars got the better of Avangard in six games. That ensured a celebration for Zinetula Bilyaletdinov, as the head coach of the Kazan team marked his 1,000th game behind the bench in Russian hockey with victory. Progress wasn’t always assured: Ak Bars’ 3-1 win in Game Four was marked by cruel deflections that beat Avangard goalie Dominik Furch, but it was good enough to deflate a potential fight-back in Omsk and ultimately send Ak Bars to a showdown with Metallurg in the Eastern Conference Final.
By this time in the season, it’s fair to expect tight series. With the four strongest teams duking it out, a game seven should be pretty much a lock in one or other match-up. Not this time. Neither series exactly played out like a sweep, but both of them ended up 4-0.
SKA delivered a masterclass in finding ways to win as it ended Lokomotiv’s run. Down 2-4 in game one, with five minutes left to play, the Petersburg team rallied to win it in overtime. Patrik Hersley and Nikita Gusev were inspired in that one. Loko took the lead again in Game Two, only to fluff its lines and suffer a 1-4 loss.
Then came the bottle of water. Game Three in Yaroslavl saw Loko in front thanks to a Pavel Kraskovsky goal. With 10 minutes left, Kudashov was ejected from the game for throwing a bottle from the bench. SKA converted the power play, took it to overtime and Alexander Barabanov popped up to win it with his first goal in 38 games. Lokomotiv could be forgiven for feeling the fates were conspiring. SKA got another 2-1 victory in Game Four and, for the first time in the series, did not fall behind at any point in the game. The stats show a 4-0 outcome, but it’s not just in Yaroslavl that many regard it as the squeakiest sweep possible.
In the East, Metallurg had a similar run of tight games to oust Ak Bars. Along the way, Danis Zaripov tormented his former team to take his goal tally to 15 and match Evgeny Dadonov’s KHL playoff record. But the 4-0 stat hides a double-overtime win in Game One, thanks to Sergei Mozyakin’s 86th-minute goal. Zaripov got his second of the series in the next one, but it took 30 saves from Vasily Koshechkin to secure a 2-0 victory.
Then it was off to Kazan where Zaripov made it four goals in three games to swing this one around in the last four minutes: down 1-2, Danis’ double handed Metallurg a 3-2 margin. Only in Game Four did Ak Bars fade. Two Mozyakin assists helped Magnitka jump into a 2-0 lead in the first 10 minutes and not even a response from Jiri Sekac could halt the visitor Mozyakin scored again, and Denis Platonov wrapped it up to set up a long break before a final series to savor – Metallurg vs SKA.
Ahead of this showdown, the talk was all about the forwards. Would Mozyakin, Zaripov and Kovar continue their devastating form for Metallurg? How much damage could Gusev, Dadonov and Shipachyov do for SKA? Would defensemen on both sides end up suffering sleepless nights against such potent offenses?
Game One seemed to justify the assumption that this would be a scorers’ final. SKA edged it 5-4, two goals from Dadonov bettered one from Mozyakin. The big guns seemed to be firing. Magnitka replied at once, winning 3-1 to level the scores before the game moved to St. Petersburg and the ding-dong battle seemed to be shaping up nicely.
But one of the truisms of hockey is that it’s defences that win cups. Now SKA’s defense stepped up its game and proved that point. Lockdown. Game Three, played on Cosmonaut’s Day, saw the Mozyakin line fail to launch. It took 92 minutes to separate the teams, but the trio produced just three shots on goal between them. SKA’s victory was delayed by Vasily Koshechkin, who made 58 saves before Dadonov beat him in double overtime. Game Four was similar; the hot shots mustered just four attempts between them as SKA peppered Koshechkin with 50 more efforts. Dinar Khafizullin was the unlikely home hero with two goals, SKA won it 3-2 to take a grip on the series.
That grip came in the form of a vice that strangled the Metallurg forwards. The defending champion was unable to unleash its formidable scoring power until it was too late and Magnitka was chasing Game Five – and the series, in the final stanza. This time SKA had clawed back a 0-2 deficit and briefly led 4-2. Metallurg turned on the style in the third, clawing a goal back immediately through Yaroslav Kosov and laying siege to Mikko Koskinen’s net. The first line was back in business – 13 shots between them, seven for Zaripov alone – but the goals did not come. Oskar Osala was millimeters away from salvaging overtime as his shot rolled along the goal line before bouncing to safety off a post; seconds later Sergei Plotnikov’s empty-net goal ended the season. Metallurg claimed a share of two scoring records – Zaripov’s 15 goals tied Dadonov’s mark from 2015, Lee’s 20 assists matched Mozyakin’s tally in 2014 – but SKA won 5-3 on the day, 4-1 overall, and lifted its second Gagarin Cup. Incredibly, Oleg Znarok’s team dropped just two games on the way to glory. The bar for next season has been set high.