The road to the KHL’s Gagarin Cup is set, with sixteen teams from Europe’s premier hockey competition battling for supremacy in the post-season. Like all things during the Covid-19 pandemic, this year’s competition will look a little bit different to usual.
Finland’s Jokerit Helsinki, the fifth seed in the Western Conference, has conceded home advantage and will play all of their Play-Off games on the road. SKA St. Petersburg has a stick-dropping NHL prospect between the pipes.
Sometimes in Russia, though, things never change. For the second season in-a-row, CSKA Moscow and Ak Bars enter the post-season as the top teams in the West and East, respectively.
With so many moving pieces, the Last Word On Sports preview is in order. Here’s what you need to know about the KHL Play-Offs.
Gagarin Cup 2020/21: What You Need To Know
The Gagarin Cup is played using a best-of-seven series format. The sixteen teams that qualify for the post-season are split along conference lines until just one team remains in both East and West.
Seeding rules are applied throughout the run to the Gagarin Cup Final, with first seeds facing eighth seeds at the conference quarter-final stage. Pairings are re-dawn for the semi-finals, meaning that the highest remaining seed in each conference will face the lowest-ranked team left in the competition.
Last year’s Gagarin Cup was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic. With the competition entering the conference semi-finals, both of the remaining non-Russian teams (Jokerit and Barys) withdrew in response to the imposition of lockdown restrictions in Europe.
Quarter-final fixtures begin on 2 March.
CSKA Moscow (1) vs Spartak Moscow (8)
CSKA enter the Gagarin Cup as the tournament’s slim favourites after topping the KHL regular-season standings. It took a final day win over Ak Bars to do it, but CSKA means business. The Army Men have led the league going into the Gagarin Cup six times out of the last 13 seasons, making them one of the KHL’s true powerhouses.
On the ice, the Moscow outfit continued their tradition of solid goaltending and defensive play. Johansson Lars leads the KHL in goals against per game (1.59) while upholding a 93.2 save percentage.
Their cross-city rivals, Spartak, finished the regular season with a disappointing 5-3 loss to Vityaz (another Moscow-based franchise), though it made no impact on their standing in the Western Conference. Head coach Znaroks Olegs will be hoping for an upset; it isn’t likely to come.
Prediction: CSKA Moscow in four.
SKA St. Petersburg (2) vs Dinamo Minsk (7)
This is one for fans of the Nashville Predators to keep an eye on. Yaroslav Askarov, the 11th overall pick of the 2020 NHL draft, has been resplendent between the pipes when given the opportunity to play by St. Petersburg. The 6’4” shot-stopper made nine regular-season appearances in 2020/21, registering a shutout and .951 save percentage to boot.
1991-born Swedish netminder Magnus Hellberg is likely to gobble-up minutes in the Play-Offs for SKA – but Askarov will be ready if called upon. Vancouver Canucks prospect Vasili Podkolzin will also be one to watch, after enduring a difficult end to his time in the KHL.
The KHL’s sole Belarusian outfit battled difficult circumstances to secure the seventh seed in the West. Civil and political unrest saw the IIHF strip Belarus of its right to host the 2021 World Championships, an issue underscored by Jokerit’s decision to boycott their trip to Minsk at the start of the season.
Minsk has qualified for the Gagarin Cup four times since joining the KHL in 2008/09; they are yet to progress beyond the conference quarter-finals. SKA beat Dinamo 4-2 to wrap-up the season – an ominous sign for the Belarusians.
Prediction: SKA St. Petersburg in four.
Dynamo Moscow (3) vs Severstal Cherepovets (6)
On the final day of the regular-season, Dmitrij Jaskin’s 38th goal of the year took him past Alexander Maltsev’s 50-year-old club record as Dynamo Moscow won at Kunlun Red Star. Dynamo ended the year in dominant fashion, winning 5-1 against Red Star.
Russian centre Vadim Shipachyov will be integral to Dynamo’s hopes of Play-Off success, he notched a league-leading 66 points for Vladimir Krikunov’s side.
28-year-old winger Krill Kapustin ended the year on a high with three goals in two games. Severstal moved ahead of Minsk on the final day of the season with a 4-2 win over a profligate HC Sochi roster. Dynamo will pose a tougher task in the Play-Offs.
Prediction: Severstal Cherepovets in six.
Lokomotiv Yaroslavl (4) vs Jokerit Helsinki (5)
Lokomotiv head coach Andrei Skabelka will look to key players Egor Korshkov, Anton Lander, and Eddie Pasquale as they embark upon yet another Gagarin Cup run. The Yaroslavl-based franchise has qualified for the post-season in every season since it was formed as Torpedo Yaroslavl 1995/96.
Jokerit, the former club of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Mikko Lehtonen, will play all of their Gagarin Cup fixtures on the road due to the pandemic. The Finnish franchise has played behind-closed-doors since January and released the following statement:
“After discussions with the KHL and the Finnish government, Jokerit decided to forfeit home-ice advantage for the playoffs. As a result, all post-season games involving the club will be played at the opponent’s arena.”
Prediction: Lokomotiv Yaroslavl in seven.
Ak Bars Kazan (1) vs Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod (8)
Ak Bars lost their final game of the season to rivals CSKA, causing them to lose the KHL’s top spot.
French forward Stephane Da Costa finished the year with 52 points in 52 appearances, ranking him as the third most prolific player in the KHL on a points-per-game basis. Nigel Dawes, Kazan’s Kazakh left winger, will be similarly dangerous after notching 43 points in 47 games.
Torpedo, however, has an offensive weapon of their own. Left-handed winger Damir Zhafyarov registered 40 assists in 58 regular-season appearances, adding a further 21 goals to his points total. Zhafyarov excels when drifting inside from the right; it’s something to watch for.
Prediction: Ak Bars in five.
Avangard Omsk (2) vs Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg (7)
Omsk finished the season with a 41-11-8 record and a +46 goal difference. Ilya Kovalchuk marked his return to action with a goal to help the Hawks clinch the Chernyshev Division title on the final day of the season. The long-time NHLer returned to Russia at the start of 2021 and has impressed playing for Avangard.
Avtombolist, by contrast, registered a 30-22-8 record to finish seventh in the Eastern Conference. Head coach Bill Peters will be hoping to see his side improve in the playoffs.
Prediction: Avangard Omsk in four.
Metallurg Magnitogorsk (3) vs Barys Nur-Sultan (6)
Russian trio Sergei Mozyakin, Sergei Plotnikov, and Vasili Kosheckin will be vital to Metallurg if they are to avenge last season’s quarter-final loss to Barys.
The Russian franchise fell to a 4-1 against their Kazakh counterparts in last year’s first-round match-up, although the result was rendered academic following the Gagarin Cup’s cancellation. After leading his side to a third-place finish in the East, Ilya Vorobyov will be more confident heading into the 2020/21 post-season.
Canadian-born Kazakhstani defenceman Darren Dietz ended the season as one of the KHL’s players of the week by scoring three goals and registering two assists in 24:28 minutes on ice. If Dietz continues his fine form, Barys are in with a shot.
Prediction: Barys Nur-Sultan in five.
Salavat Yulaev (4) vs Traktor Chelyabinsk (5)
With seven points separating the fourth and fifth seeds in the East, Salavat Yulaev enters the series as stronger favourites. 32-year-old goalie Juha Metsola has impressed since entering the KHL in 2015, securing a 21-14-3 record this time out.
After missing out last year, Traktor will be pleased to make their Gagarin Cup return as fifth seeds. The Ufa-based franchise reached the Conference Finals in 2017/18 but is unlikely to make it to that stage in 2021. Traktor’s +13 goal difference is a source of concern, making them underdogs for this one.
Prediction: Salavat Yulaev in four.
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