Will Lokomotiv be able to crush the champion?

One of the main intrigues of the last days of the regular season was who would be the opponent of the current Gagarin Cup winner in the first round.

Yes, SKA and Lokomotiv had old scores to settle with CSKA and were in much better shape, but they hardly wanted to start their quest for the trophy with such a difficult confrontation.

And they unanimously lost in the final match of the season, giving the right to decide their fate to the Muscovites themselves, as well as to the Nizhny Novgorod residents who fought with them for sixth place.

If Torpedo managed to get ahead of its competitors in the table, the fans would have been treated to an army derby at the start of the draw, but it was beaten by Lada and remained in seventh position.

Thus, CSKA lost to Lokomotiv, whose prospects in the playoffs the army team had given up on for the last three years.

And if in 2021 and 2023 the railway workers showed worthy resistance to their opponents and lost only in seven matches, then in 2022 they were defeated with a dry score of 0-4. 

But if few people believed in the Yaroslavl team back then, now their chances of winning are assessed as quite high.

Unlike their opponents, they went through the regular season relatively smoothly and, even if they didn’t show a sparkling game, they achieved results.

The same cannot be said about the Muscovites, who experienced ups and downs and were unable to solve all their problems before the start of the Gagarin Cup.

In ten meetings they lost six times, and gained the upper hand either over outsiders or over the crisis “Torpedo” and do not give the impression of a machine ready to destroy opponents left and right.

In the near future, Lokomotiv may not have a better opportunity to break the streak and deal with the offender, so success must be achieved here and now, otherwise there is a risk of starting the next competitive year with a new coach.

Will Torpedo come to its senses?

As for Igor Larionov’s team, over the past few months they have managed to transform from the leaders of the Western Conference and contenders for the trophy into a team that only wants to avoid relegation with a clean sheet.

Since January 26, the Nizhny Novgorod team lost in 12 out of 14 meetings, and at the end suffered seven defeats in a row.

And although in most cases they were beaten in a fierce fight, as evidenced by ten losses with a minimal difference, this fact can hardly inspire the fans.

Added to this was the story of the removal of assistant captain Anton Sizov, which practically coincided with the beginning of the terrifying Torpedo series.

And for now it is difficult to say whether Igor Larionov is able to correct the situation and try, if not to leave Roman Rotenberg’s squad behind, then at least to force a fight on it.

A year earlier, the teams' paths crossed in the second round, and the army team quite confidently dealt with their opponents, winning all four matches with a total score of 16:8.

But then Torpedo looked even somewhat better than it does now, and the Professor did not have to ask both the hockey players themselves and the fans to continue to believe in success.

Although there are no prerequisites for this.

In addition to gaming, Nizhny Novgorod residents are experiencing personnel problems.

Kirill Kirsanov received a serious back injury and ended the competitive year, and Vasily Atanasov, although he recently returned to action, does not yet look so bright.

Since February 16, the mentor’s son, Igor Larionov Jr., has not been on the ice.

You shouldn’t expect the same Sizov to be at the core, even if he remains one of the leaders of the team in terms of usefulness (“+13”).

And without them, it will be extremely difficult to fight with a team that has not only the best defense (139), but also the second strongest attack in the league (220).

Only Spartak scored more goals (233).

Will Spartak win the first series in 14 years?

In turn, Alexei Zhamnov’s team will try to break the unsuccessful streak and finally win a full victory in the playoff series.

Yes, nominally Spartak did this in 2022, but then success in the confrontation with Jokerit was not achieved on the ice: after the start of a special military operation, the Finns simply refused to participate in the championship and received four technicians in a row.

And in the next stage, the red-whites themselves were unable to do anything against SKA and capitulated with a score of 1-4.

If we leave the duel with Jokerit aside, Spartak is on a streak of seven defeats in the KHL playoffs.

The aforementioned SKA played the role of their offenders three times, CSKA twice, Lokomotiv and Dynamo once each.

By the way, it was over the Muscovites that they prevailed last time in the Gagarin Cup.

In 2010, the red-whites were stronger in the best-of-three series (3-1), but did not advance beyond the second round.

Now the chances of repeating the achievement of 14 years ago are decent.

Spartak finished in fourth position in the Western Conference and had the advantage of their home court, as well as not the most stable opponent.

Yes, Severstal’s offensive play is impressive: it ranked sixth in the league in scoring and became only the tenth team in history to break the 200-goal mark in the regular season (203), but it also conceded quite a few goals (185).

True, in this regard, the Muscovites were even a little worse and allowed their goal to be hit as many as 189 times.

Thus, the confrontation between Spartak and Severstal promises to be the most open and vibrant in the first round, and its outcome will largely depend on how well the red-white leaders perform.

Yes, in the championship Nikolai Goldobin and Pavel Poryadin performed above all praise and scored 135 points between them, but whether they will be just as good in the playoffs is a big question.

The first had previously demonstrated instability, and the second was not at all involved in solving serious problems at this stage.

For the last two years, his “Neftekhimik” ended up in “Traktor” and “Ak Bars”, from whom they took only two matches in total.

Will Ak Bars gather its strength?

In the East, serious concerns are raised about the condition of the current vice-champion.

Yes, Ak Bars retained home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, but were only in eighth place in the KHL summary table, which has not happened to them since 2019.

By the way, then the Kazan team literally failed in the Gagarin Cup and were already defeated by Avangard at the start (0-4).

And there are prerequisites for a repeat of this fiasco.

Apparently, Ak Bars will begin their quest for the trophy without one of their leaders: Dmitry Yashkin has not yet had time to recover from an injury.

But other flagships are far from in ideal shape.

Thus, the most productive hockey player of the team, Vadim Shipachev, did not even enter the top 30 best scorers of the championship (13 + 31 in 62), and Alexander Radulov (16 + 24 in 58) was located even further.

And this is surprising, because a year ago he scored 57 points and became third in the list of top scorers in the league.

At the same time, at the end of the season, the ex-Dallas striker experienced health problems, which could also affect his prospects in the spring.

And these weaknesses of Zinetula Bilyaletdnov’s squad may well be taken advantage of by Avtomobilist, whose stars returned to duty in a very timely manner.

According to the club's press service, both the team's old-timer Anatoly Golyshev and its top scorer Stefan Da Costa, who missed the end of the championship, will go to Kazan.

Brooks Macek is in great shape, and Curtis Valk, who scored 10 (4 + 6) points in seven games in last year’s playoffs, can add to the playoffs.

The only question is whether the Ekaterinburg team will have enough self-confidence to crush one of the leaders of Russian hockey and make it to the quarterfinals of the Gagarin Cup for the second time in history.

Previously, they achieved this level only in 2019, when they left Traktor out of business.

Will there be no sensations in the East?

In recent years, the Eastern Conference has seen many sensations at the start of the playoffs.

So, two years ago, Ak Bars was quite unexpectedly beaten by Avangard in six meetings, and in 2023 they managed to lose twice to Neftekhimik.

But the main surprise then came from the “Admiral”, which left “Salavat Yulaev” itself behind.

And today’s underdogs, who are ready to fray the nerves of the recognized favorites, may well be inspired by this example.

First of all, this applies to Lada, which made it to the top 16 teams in the KHL in the first year after its return.

After all, Oleg Bratash’s team not only did not lose to Avangard in the season series (2-2), but also found the “hawks” not in the best shape.

At the end of the championship, they capitulated three times in a row, and, apparently, they will be forced to start the playoffs without Ivan Telegin and Roman Abrosimov.

But this will not make it any easier for the Togliatti team, because they will have to contain the most productive trio of the regular season, consisting of Reed Boucher, Vladimir Tkachev and Ryan Spooner.

As for Traktor and Amur, it will be extremely difficult for them to impose a fight on Salavat and Metallurg, respectively.

The first lost in all four matches of the season, and the second, although he created a sensation and “outshot” the Magnitogorsk team in one of the confrontations (7:6), can hardly count on the final triumph.

The level difference seems too big.