The KHL play-offs get underway on Friday, while Russian hockey continues to come to terms with its Sochi Olympic failure. Not surprisingly, many of the storylines that are likely to dominate the coming weeks of competition have strong echoes of what we saw beside the Black Sea last month.
Rivalries in the KHL come in many categories. As the league is still young, many of the rivalries have carried over from the days of the Russian Superleague, while others are new and may disappear. Some are based on geography, while others are based on team names or organization that these teams belonged to back in the Soviet Union.
A continuation of the general rivalry between St. Petersburg and Moscow, this rivalry encompasses SKA against any of the moscow teams, although not the teams in Moscow Oblast. Every year, sports news outlets even calculate who the Moscow Champion is, based on games just between these three teams.
The regular season scoring stats make for intriguing reading – and seem to split the league into East and West. The top five point scorers all play in the east, and all represent either Metallurg Magnitogorsk or Barys Astana. It’s a similar story for the leaders in goals and assists, with only Sibir’s Jori Lehtera breaking the Magnitka-Barys stranglehold.
Ak Bars boasts the top goalie, Emil Garipov, and the top-scoring D-men almost all play in the east. Only SKA St. Petersburg’s Maxim Chudinov (+30, placing fourth for plus/minus) and CSKA Moscow’s Deron Quint (fifth among top-scoring defencemen with 28 points) challenge the Eastern dominance of the individual prizes.
Yet, as we saw in Sochi, individual greatness is rarely a match for solid team-work. Dynamo Moscow has demonstrated this in the past two seasons – and Oleg Znarok has led his team to the top of the regular season table without relying heavily on any individual star.
As of the second season of the KHL (2009-10), all the Moscow teams are in one Conference, making rivalry matches more common. Due to hockey being less popular than football and other sports in Moscow, teams based there usually suffer in attendance. Capital city derbies, however, are always attended far better than other games.
Even SKA, for whom Ilya Kovalchuk is arguably the biggest name in the league, has shared the points around – young Artemi Panarin has matched Kovi point for point throughout the season, Roman Cervenka is close on their heels. The final destiny of the Gagarin Cup looks set to be decided when the most reliable team players come head to head with the most dangerous individuals, and the outcome could well illuminate one of the underlying questions in contemporary Russian hockey.
The KHL play-offs start in the West on Friday. Defending champion Dynamo Moscow faces Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, SKA plays CSKA in an army derby and there are two cross-border encounters as Lev takes on Medvescak and Donbass welcomes Dinamo Riga.
On Saturday the Eastern Conference joins, with Metallurg Magnitogorsk facing Admiral, Barys playing Avtomobilist, Ak Bars taking on Sibir and Salavat Yulayev welcoming Torpedo. Each series is played until a team reaches four victories.