CSKA’s victory over SKA in this year’s Western Conference final means that, for the 10th season running, the regular season champion will not lift the Gagarin Cup. So what happened to the top seeds in each of the 10 playoff campaigns the KHL has seen so far?
The inaugural KHL season saw Salavat Yulaev lead the way. The team from Ufa finished with 129 points from 56 games. The leading scorers were Alexei Tereshchenko with 58 points in 55 appearances and Alexander Perezhogin (52 from 55), while Alexander Radulov’s return to Russia brought him 48 points in 52 games. In this first season, there were no Conferences, so the playoff seeding pitted 1 against 16 – Salavat Yulaev against Avangard.
On paper, it looked straightforward. Avangard trailed in fourth in the Kharlamov Division, behind Dinamo Riga and Lada. Its tally of 78 points was 51 down of Salavat Yulaev’s return. However, there were some mitigating circumstances. The team had been devastated by the tragic death of young forward Alexei Cherepanov during a game at Vityaz and its form predictably wobbled after that.
The opening game of the ‘best-of-five’ series went as expected: Salavat won on home ice – but needed overtime to claim a 3-2 verdict. The next game was goalless, decided by Jakub Klepis’ shoot-out winner (a playoff shoot-out was a thing back then as well). Off to Omsk with the series level and Klepis struck again to win it in overtime. The shock was sealed in game four: Avangard won 4-1, Jaromir Jagr potting his second goal of the playoffs along the way. That was as good as it got for Avangard, though: in the next phase Ak Bars beat the Hawks 3-2 on its way to lifting the inaugural Gagarin Cup.
One year on, and it was a similar story in Ufa. Admittedly, this time around the team got beyond the first phase of the playoffs … but it could not go on to lift the cup.
Alexander Radulov was in form early on and finished as the leading scorer in post season with 19 (8+11) points from 16 games. That took Salavat Yulaev past Avtomobilist (3-1) and Neftekhimik (4-2) to set up a ‘Green Derby’ in the Eastern Conference final. Defending champion Ak Bars started on the road and jumped to a 3-0 lead in the series. However, it struggled to finish the job. Two goals from Radulov lifted Salavat Yulaev to a 4-2 victory in game four, and series went back to Ufa where Igor Grigorenko and Radulov yet again scored in the last 10 minutes to snatch a 2-1 victory. In the end, Ak Bars edged it in game six, claiming a 2-1 verdict thanks to a late power play goal from Ilya Nikulin. That set up a grand final against HK MVD – the first high-profile meeting of rival coaches Zinetula Bilyaletdinov and Oleg Znarok – and the Kazan team finished with its second successive title.
After upsetting the odds in 2009, Avangard was on the wrong end of the equation two years later. With Jagr still doing the business, the regular season campaign was a good one in Omsk – but come the playoffs, it was all over in two rounds. The danger signs were visible in the Conference quarter-final when it took seven games to separate the top seed and lowly Neftekhimik. Round two, against Metallurg Magnitogorsk, also went the full distance … and ended with Avangard losing out.
It was a topsy-turvy battle. Metallurg went to Omsk and returned with two victories – a Denis Platonov hat-trick inspiring a 4-2 win before Juhamati Aaltonen claimed an overtime verdict in game two. Then Avangard hit back with two wins on the road, including a 3-2 triumph in the third period of overtime – at the time, the KHL’s longest ever game. Another epic back in Siberia saw the rarity of a home win when Andrei Pervyshin again scored in overtime and Avangard was on the brink of progress.
But the story wasn’t over. Metallurg grabbed a last-minute winner to keep the series alive, and a 2-0 success back in Omsk ended the Avangard dream for another year. Salavat Yulaev missed out on the regular season prize for the first time, and promptly lifted its first Gagarin Cup by defeating Atlant in the final.
Traktor’s march to the top of the regular season table was something of a surprise, but the team certainly began its playoff push in championship form. A 4-1 series against Ugra was followed by victory over Ak Bars in six games. And, once again, Avangard entered the story of the top seed.
This was the Avangard of Alexander Perezhogin and Roman Cervenka, backstopped by Karri Ramo and featuring Anton Belov in impressive form on the blue line. Traktor started out with a 3-1 win … and then lost the next four.
It was always tight: that solid defense made a huge difference as Avangard edged a pair of 1-0 verdicts – the second, fittingly, wrapped up the series on a Belov goal. Another game went to double overtime before Omsk claimed a 3-2 win. There was never much between the teams, but the curse of top spot struck again to end Traktor’s hopes. Avangard, meanwhile, lost out to Dynamo Moscow in the final as Znarok claimed his first Gagarin Cup.
With high hopes of lifting the big prize, SKA invested heavily in personnel. For a time, it seemed to be working. Patrik Thoresen was in prolific form throughout the season, while the temporary appearance of Ilya Kovalchuk added additional impetus to the team during the NHL lock-out. Having Sergei Bobrovsky in goal didn’t do any harm either, and SKA topped the table with 115 points. There were oddities along the way: head coach Milos Riha was fired in November after leading the team to the top; Jukka Jalonen took over from him and led St. Petersburg into the playoffs.
The start was smooth: SKA cruised past Severstal and Atlant for the loss of just one game. But a repeat of the previous year’s Western Conference final against Dynamo ended the dream all over again.
At first, it seemed that we might see a repeat of the previous year’s sweep. Dynamo won twice in Petersburg, then recovered a 0-2 deficit to go 3-0 ahead in the series. When the Blue-and-Whites jumped to a 2-0 lead in game four, the story was almost done. But not quite. SKA suddenly jumped up a gear. Three goals in five minutes turned the game around late in the second period, and the visitor ended with a 6-2 margin. It took 98 minutes to secure that momentum back on home ice, but Tony Martensson’s overtime winner made it 2-3 and the series was alive and kicking. Dynamo thought differently, though, and Marek Kvapil’s hat-trick in game six set up a 5-1 victory. Dynamo went on to beat Traktor and claim its second Gagarin Cup.
After winning two Gagarin Cups, Dynamo followed up by topping the table. And, once again, the curse struck. Again, there may have been mitigating circumstances: Russia’s failure to medal at the Sochi Olympics saw Znarok handed the national team job in place of Bilyaletdinov. He continued to work with Dynamo but was also responsible for the country’s preparations for the World Championship in Minsk. It looked like a tall order, and Lokomotiv managed to derail him in round one.
The series was remarkable for the turnaround. The first five games all ended in narrow home victories, putting Dynamo up 3-2. But every meeting was a one-goal game, and three went to overtime. There seemed to be nothing to choose between these two – until game six in Yaroslavl. Suddenly, the floodgates opened. Dave King’s Loko powered to a 6-0 victory with former Dynamo men Ilya Gorokhov and Sergei Konkov sharing three of the goals. Back to Moscow for the decider, and the outcome was almost as emphatic. Lokomotiv romped to a 5-1 success with Konkov scoring twice more after a quickfire double midway through the first period dented Dynamo’s hopes.
Loko’s win blew the Western Conference wide open, and the Railwaymen were defeated in Conference Final by Lev Prague. The Czech team, still the only non-Russian club to reach a Gagarin Cup final, took Magnitka to seven games before falling.
The early years of the KHL were not kind to CSKA. The famous old club’s money problems made it hard to ice a competitive team and the Red-and-Blue half of Moscow had to endure Dynamo’s success while it struggled to make an impact in the playoffs. That all changed with the arrival of Rosneft’s funding, transforming the Army Men into one of the wealthiest clubs in the competition.
That money was wisely spent. Dmitry Kvartalnov came in as head coach, Alexander Radulov and Igor Grigorenko reprised their partnership at Salavat Yulaev and young Nikita Zaitsev demonstrated his immense potential. The regular season title duly followed, and playoff progress was going smoothly.
Right up until game four of the Western Conference Final against SKA. CSKA had won the first three and seemed poised to progress. No team had ever blown a 3-0 lead in a KHL playoff series and, despite SKA’s powerful roster (including Kovalchuk, back full-time from the NHL), there was little reason to assume that was about to change. But change it did. Former CSKA and Salavat Yulaev head coach Vyacheslav Bykov found the answers; SKA reeled off four wins – two convincing, two tight – and the Panarin-Dadonov-Shipachyov troika announced itself to the world. SKA kept up its commanding form to defeat Ak Bars in five games of the Grand Final; CSKA felt the curse. As in 2010, Radulov topped the individual scoring chart to no avail.
Another year, another powerful CSKA team … and another failure for the regular season champion. This time, for the first time ever, the top seed made it to the Gagarin Cup final. CSKA avenged its misery of 2015 by sweeping SKA in the conference final and powered into the big showdown with just one defeat in three rounds. A 5-1 romp in the opening game justified widespread predictions that CSKA would have little difficulty seeing off Metallurg, a team that had ditched head coach Mike Keenan during the season and promoted Ilya Vorobyov to the top job.
But the rest of the contest was tight. The next five games were all settled by a single goal, with Sergei Mozyakin producing a late equalizer and an overtime winner in Moscow in game five to push Metallurg in front. CSKA responded with an OT success of its own in the Urals to set up a decider – Mikhail Yunkov holding his nerve to win it after Magnitka scored two late goals to salvage the game in regulation – but the cup still went to Magnitogorsk again thanks to Chris Lee and Evgeny Timkin in that game seven showdown.
Sometimes, lightning does strike repeatedly. CSKA coped with the loss of Zaitsev and Radulov by winning the regular season title for a third successive time. And then lost out in the playoffs yet again.
After sweeping Jokerit – albeit thanks to three overtime wins – the Army Men were big favorites to stop a youthful Lokomotiv team in the second round. Instead, the series was over in six and the Railwaymen steamed into the Conference Final.
Game four was the key. CSKA led 2-1 in the series but Loko stormed to a 5-1 victory on home ice. Geoff Platt gave the Army Men a first-period lead against his former club, but after that Loko took charge. There was a goal and an assist for Brandon Kozun and Jakub Nakladal; two assists each for Staffan Kronwall and Petri Kontiola. CSKA’s confidence was jolted. It never won another game.
Stellar goaltending from Alexander Sudnitsin secured a 2-1 win in game five then, back in Yaroslavl, Alexei Kudashov’s team wrapped it up with a 3-1 success built on two power play goals. By the middle of the following season, Kvartalnov would have replaced Kudashov; SKA saw off Loko and went on to lift its second Gagarin Cup.
Fifteen Olympic champions on a roster coached by Russia’s head coach. A defending champion going for its third Gagarin Cup in four seasons under the guidance of the only man to stand behind the bench in three successful KHL campaigns. If any team could do the double of regular season and playoff glory, surely this loaded SKA roster was the one?
SKA delivered the first part of the equation emphatically, collecting 138 points in regular season and looking a class above all comers. Playoff progress was smooth, dropping just one game in series against Severstal and Lokomotiv. But then came CSKA – and Lars Johansson in particular.
The Swedish goalie had been an understudy to Ilya Sorokin throughout the campaign, but he got his chance in game five of this series with the scores tied at 2-2. A shut-out handed CSKA a 1-0 win, but Sorokin returned for game six as Igor Nikitin looked to close out a place in the Gagarin Cup final.
Sorokin lasted barely four minutes. Johansson came back to the crease with SKA up 2-0 and in rampant form. And Johansson endured. And endured. Save after save kept his team in the game and gradually CSKA found its own offense, despite the absence of injured talisman Kirill Kaprizov. Late in the game, Mikhail Grigorenko tied it at 2-2. In overtime, Johansson pulled off a blinding save to deny Pavel Datsyuk. Two minutes later, Grigorenko potted the winner. SKA was out, CSKA goes for its first ever Gagarin Cup against Ak Bars when the final starts on Saturday.