The KHL has reached the last corner of the race for the Gagarin Cup prior to entering the main straight that will determine the champion of this season. On Friday, the conference finals begin and they promise to be entertaining and we might finally see some surprises as opposed to what was the experience in prior rounds.
CSKA Moscow – SKA St.Petersburg
We’ve all grown old and got used to these two army teams battling it out at some point in the playoffs, however, lately, it’s been too much of this in the conference finals. The global fan base certainly doesn’t enjoy it as much as the domestic folk. But for the fifth time in six years – here we go again. What can we expect this time around? SKA has had some rest after taking care of Dynamo Moscow in the semi-finals while CSKA went all the way to game seven in a battle against Lokomotiv. CSKA is bound to have some wear and tear but so far only Dmitri Samorukov is missing with an undisclosed injury. SKA will have to play without Marat Khusnutzdinov.
Both coaches are experienced which promises an entertaining battle between them, Igor Nikitin has large KHL experience while Valeri Bragin has done everything imaginable with junior squads. CSKA has the edge on defense and in the net but their team has shown some issues on forecheck. They will have to get creative. SKA being a team that focuses on offense will score and that’s a given, however, they will have to be careful in their own back end and hope that Magnus Hellberg will be in top form. I certainly won’t be surprised to see Yaroslav Askarov get called upon at some point. Ultimately this series will come down to who can put together a consistent stretch within a short period of time.
Prediction: It’s way too obvious but I still think that money wins games in KHL so I’m going with CSKA in six.
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AkBars Kazan – Avangard Omsk
Hello there again AkBars… but this time around it’s not about them. We all know that Akbars is no longer that defensive team but rather an offensive team that also relies on Timur Bilyalov and his goaltending skills. He, however, got injured during the semi-finals and his availability is yet to be known and if he’s not there to help his team, that might cause issues. Meanwhile, Bob Hartley and his Avangard Omsk squad have shown signs of a struggle. Good news? Although Bobkov is no longer the team’s number one goalie, they’ve rediscovered Simon Hrubec who was the sole reason why they got past Metallurg Magnitogorsk in the second round. A learning curve that should serve as a wake-up call to Moscow based team. But that comes with a cost, Hartley due to KHL import rules will have to sit one of their foreign players and it looks like Jiri Sekac is the odd man out. Ilya Kovalchuk will have to step up and be the man on the offensive side, otherwise, it’ll be hard for Omsk to get past Akbars. AkBars main edge is their experience at this stage. The hope for all of us is that for the first time in a long time – this will be an unpredictable match-up that leads to a surprise for those that will be following the finals.
Prediction: This will go the distance and will require some luck but I’ll have Omsk in seven.