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It’s hard to imagine a greater contrast than the head coaches of Ak Bars and Traktor. Zinetula Bilyaletdinov is an archetype of the stern, unsmiling Russian coach, while his opponent in Chelyabinsk, Anvar Gatiyatulin, feels like part of a new generation. It’s hard to imagine coach Bill responding kindly to a TV presenter asking him to come up with a hashtag for the upcoming Ak Bars – Traktor series; Gatiyatulin quickly came up with #chakchakChTZ, combining Kazan’s favorite delicacy with the Chelyabinsk Tractor Plant that gives his team its name. Admittedly, it’s a flash of wordplay that works better in Russian, but its perhaps symbolic of two generations doing battle here. And, even on the ice, that analogy holds: the team of Markov and Zaripov, ultra-experienced Russian veterans, faces Traktor’s record-breaking teenager Vitaly Kravtsov. Here’s how they stack up.
For Ak Bars, the goaltending equation is a simple one. Emil Garipov has stood guard for his team throughout the playoffs; understudy Alexander Sharychenkov has played a mere 58 seconds in the two series so far. Garipov’s form has been solid: an SVG of 93.8% and a GAA of 1.78, plus one shut-out. It’s unlikely Zinetula Bilyaletdinov will change the formula at this stage unless circumstances force his hand.
In Chelyabinsk, though, things are less clear cut. True, Czech international Pavel Francouz has enjoyed the bulk of the game time – nine games for him against four for young Russian Vasily Demchenko. But Demchenko has had his chances in both series so far, and has not been found wanting. Both goalies are among the top four in this year’s playoffs, with Demchenko’s SVG of 95.3% putting him a whisker ahead of his more experienced rival on 95.0%.
Ak Bars does not have the biggest selection of D-men to call on, working with just eight in these players, of whom only five have featured in every game. It has the feel of a potential weakness: for all the Kazan team has progressed while dropping just two games, the defense has never looked as imposing as a potential champion might hope. Andrei Markov and Atte Ohtamaa have done most of the legwork, playing more than 20 minutes per game each; Vasily Tokranov is keeping up his scoring form from regular season with five (2+3) points.
For Traktor, injuries took a toll early on. Evgeny Ryasensky was ruled out before the action even began, while Nikita Nikitin was hurt during the series against Neftekhimik. In their absence, others have stepped up. Nick Bailen, whose move from Dinamo Minsk in the summer has played a big role in Traktor’s improvement this season, leads the scoring from the blue line with eight (3+5) points. Ivan Vishnevsky is enjoying one of his best ever playoff campaigns. Then there’s Alexander Shinin, who made headlines when he scored his first goal in 182 games to help his team to a 7-1 victory over Salavat Yulaev and tip the momentum of that series decisively in Traktor’s favor.
Both teams have opted for similar line-ups on offense, with each led by a foreign legion. For Ak Bars, the Azevedo-Lander-Sekac troika has been impressive, while Traktor has turned to the Gynge-Videll-Szczechura trio to form its top line. However, from a Russian veteran to an exciting home-grown talent, much of the drama of this series could come from elsewhere.
The real impact for Traktor has come from its home-grown talent. Vitaly Kravtsov has been writing his own headlines throughout these playoffs, earning favorable comparisons with Evgeny Kuznetsov and Valery Nichushkin thanks to his scoring feats. The 18-year-old is currently on 11 (6+5) points, the best return for a junior in KHL post season action and only five points adrift of Maxim Afinogenov’s all-time Russian record. He’s one goal shy of a KHL goal-scoring record for a youngster as well. Alexei Kruchinin has proved an able assistant, and shows signs of turning his potential into production as he continues his best season to date, but it’s Gynge who is leading the scoring with 13 points. The former Dynamo, Lev and Admiral man has a long KHL career, but this is the first time he’s made an impact in post season.
For Ak Bars, Justin Azevedo leads the way, contributing in every game of the series against Metallurg and on course to better his scoring feats with Lev back in 2014. Back then, he had 20 points as the Czech team went to the Gagarin Cup Final; now he’s on 15 (5+10) from 10 games. But Danis Zaripov is also getting on it. He barely featured in the first round, but produced six points in five games to help defeat his old team-mates at Metallurg in round two. History shows that a productive Zaripov is often a ticket to landing the big prizes: 16 points in 21 games to win the first Gagarin Cup with Ak Bars in 2009, 26 in 21 to collect the cup for Magnitka in 2014, and 22 in 18 last season as Metallurg came second to SKA. If he maintains the productivity of the previous round, that could be the factor that pushes Ak Bars into its fourth Gagarin Cup final.