Army Classics

In the era of the KHL, the confrontation between the army men of Moscow and St. Petersburg acquired the status of a classic one. Four of the last seven editions of the Gagarin Cup ended with the triumph of one of the teams and only once during this period the title of the strongest in the Western Conference was determined not by the results of their face-to-face duel. In 2017, Lokomotiv intervened in the hegemonic dispute, which, by the way, also had the opportunity to do so this season. But the class of the current trophy holders still affected, which resulted in a crushing defeat in the seventh match of the series.

Roman Rotenberg's charges had a great opportunity not only to make it to the finals for the first time in six years, but also to take revenge on their opponents for a series of disappointing failures. Five previous confrontations of the teams in the Gagarin Cup ended with the capitulation of St. Petersburg, and their last success dates back to 2015. Then the team led by Vyacheslav Bykov did the almost impossible. SKA lost in the first three matches, but then won four times in a row and advanced to the decisive round. And there the skating rink drove through Ak Bars.

And so far there is a feeling that it is the hockey players from the Northern capital who can be considered favorites. This season, for the first time in five years, they took first place in the regular season and not only won the Continental Cup, but also secured the advantage of home ice in all rounds of the playoffs (which they could not boast of in previous years). And the St. Petersburgers approach the next duel in a much better physical condition. Unlike the Muscovites, it took them only ten games to reach the conference finals, while the opponents had all 14. Already at the first stage, CSKA faced fierce resistance from Severstal and almost completed the performance, and then with great difficulty prevailed over Lokomotiv. And the difference of seven days of rest may well take its toll, especially if the series drags on.

The statistics in this playoffs also speak in favor of SKA. On average, Rotenberg's charges throw more per game, more often force opponents to leave, and concede about the same as CSKA. One of their main problems is the implementation of the majority, the percentage of which they occupy the penultimate place among all participants in the tournament. But CSKA is not so good in this aspect. Sergei Fedorov's team punishes for every fifth sending-off and is not even in the top 8 in this indicator.

At the same time, the leaders of St. Petersburg are in excellent shape. Marat Khairullin has already scored 13 (6 + 7) points, and Nikita Gusev (5 + 6) with Vasily Glotov (5 + 4) are just a little behind. Plus, the latter, together with Stepan Falkovsky, shares the first place in terms of utility ("+12"). And this once again indicates its effectiveness.

Only the condition of Dmitry Yashkin is alarming. In the playoffs, the top scorer and scorer of the regular season was not so convincing and so far limited to only five goals and two assists in eight meetings. And in the second match with Torpedo, he was completely injured, because of which he missed half of the series. And it is not yet clear whether he will have time to recover for the duel with CSKA. Neither the forward nor the head coach have yet revealed the cards and promise to answer the question of a possible appearance on the ice on the day of the first game.

As for CSKA, in addition to Mikhail Grigorenko and Nikita Nesterov, who traditionally perform strongly in the playoffs, Maxim Mamin stands out against the general background. He has already managed to score 10 (5 + 5) points and very soon can repeat the personal record. Two years ago, he had 12 points for scoring, but then he needed to play 22 games for this.

Nevertheless, the main trump card of the Muscovites may be their goalkeeper Adam Reideborn. Yes, in the same series with Lokomotiv, he was not always stable, and in the third game he conceded five goals, some of which were on his conscience. Then many even thought about the need to send the Swede to the reserve and give Alexander Sharychenkov a chance to prove himself.

But later the legionnaire pulled himself together and quite confidently spent the final period of the confrontation, and in the key meeting he was completely incomparable. The Scandinavian made 30 saves, left the goal untouched and recorded the second "cracker" in this edition of the Gagarin Cup (only from the St. Petersburg army dmitry Nikolaev).

Thus, there is no doubt that the upcoming confrontation between SKA and CSKA will cause tremendous interest. Largely because it could be the last in history as part of the West's final. Apparently, many are bored of watching their battles at this stage.

In particular, the president of the Russian Ice Hockey Federation Vladislav Tretyak in a comment to RIA Novosti said: "In my opinion, next year they need to be separated and hold a cross-playoff, otherwise we have the same thing every time. As for the news on the introduction of this system, we should ask SKA about this. They haven't given us any details yet."

Avangard series against Ak Bars experience

In the East, the most titled team of the league and one of the main losers of the Gagarin Cup will meet each other. If Ak Bars remains the only three-time winner of the trophy in history and has lost only once in the final, then Avangard ranks last in terms of the percentage of victories in the decisive stage among the champions. In 2012, Omsk could not cope with Dynamo Moscow, in 2019 they lost to CSKA and only two years later finally achieved their goal.

At the same time, for the Eastern Conference, the confrontation between Kazan and Omsk is no less iconic than the struggle between Muscovites and St. Petersburgers is for the Western Conference. Previously, the paths of the teams crossed six times. And although at first Ak Bars looked more confident and three times in a row broke the opponent's hopes for the championship, later Avangard managed to restore parity. Not counting the 2020 playoffs interrupted due to the coronavirus pandemic, the opponents met in each of the three previous editions of the tournament and each time success accompanied the Hawks.

True, since that moment Avangard has seriously changed. Bob Hartley left the coaching bridge, which provoked an extremely crumpled start to the current regular season. Under the leadership of Dmitry Ryabykin, the club won only six of the 16 matches at the start of the championship, provoking the resignation of the coach. And although initially Mikhail Kravets came to the post of acting, in the shortest possible time he earned a full-fledged contract. Together with him, the team began to regularly score points and subsequently finished third in the conference, losing only to Salavat Yulaev and Ak Bars.

It is curious that the future leader of the East experienced similar problems. In the off-season, Kazan gathered one of the most stellar rosters in the league and invited no less famous specialist - Oleg Znarok. But he was never able to properly dispose of the talents of Alexander Radulov, Vadim Shipachyov and Vyacheslav Voinov. No, failure was avoided. Under his leadership, Kazan won 16 out of 36 matches, but this was clearly not enough for the management. Perhaps the decision of the bosses was influenced by the anti-record series of six defeats that occurred in October and the conflict with the main star, which resulted in a transfer to the reserves.

Anyway, Znarok was sacked, and three and a half weeks later, the name of the new head coach was announced. One of the most titled mentors of the country, Zinetula Bilyaletdinov, was called upon to save the newly minted dream team. And things quickly got better. Together with him, Ak Bars lost only five of the 25 matches and for the sixth time in history became the first in the conference.

There is no doubt that it is the head coaches who will largely determine the outcome of the struggle for a place in the final of the tournament. If the opponents are approximately equal in composition, then Bilyaletdinov is completely superior to Kravets in terms of experience. But the latter has repeatedly demonstrated his ability to surprise opponents. Suffice it to recall how easily he dealt with Ilya Vorobyov's Metallurg. Magnitogorsk suffered four defeats in a row, and at times seemed helpless against the background of Omsk.

The duel of the leaders of both teams also looks intriguing. Alexander Radulov and Reed Boucher are adjacent not only in the list of scorers, where they occupy the top two lines with seven and six goals, respectively, but also in the race of scorers. Both scored 11 points, however, the Russian played three more games. The first will be assisted by Dmitry Kagarlitsky, Stanislav Galiev and Dmitry Voronkov, and the second - his star partners in the link - Vladimir Tkachev and Korban Knight.

Surely many expect that the ex-captain of Kazan Vadim Shipachyov will also say his weighty word. The current playoff center frankly fails and so far has only 5 (1 + 4) points in 12 meetings. And if he suddenly does not find his game and does not benefit his partners, for Ak Bars everything can end with another defeat against Avangard.

Among other things, the goalkeeper duel looks extremely intriguing. Timur Bilyalov and Vasily Demchenko are rightly considered one of the most reliable goalkeepers in the championship and are in the top 4 in terms of the percentage of shots saved (94.3% - 94.0%), only Johan Mattsson and Nikita Serebryakov have more. However, in terms of reliability coefficient, Kazan is much better (1.6 - 1.81). And this is despite the fact that he had to enter the game almost 200 times more (with three additional matches played).

But at the moment, Kravets is probably worried not about the rivalry of goalkeepers, but about the health of his defenders. On the eve of the training, the teams missed Semyon Chistyakov and Damir Sharipzyanov, who received a cut in the final meeting of the series with Metallurg.

"We hope that both will play in the series. Sharipzyanov is still in the (list. - RT) of patients, Chistyakov fell ill a little. I hope that he will also recover," Kravets was quoted as saying by Championship.