On Sunday the culmination of the KHL season will have arrived – two teams will step on the ice and when the puck drops it’ll be time to decide the winner of this season’s Gagarin Cup.
CSKA Moscow was the first team to clinch their place in the Gagarin Cup final. They swept Spartak Moscow in the first round, went to seven with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl which was by far the most entertaining series so far in the playoffs, and finally, in the conference finals, they eliminated their arch-rivals – SKA St.Petersburg.
Avangard Omsk followed with a first-round victory against Bill Peters and his Avtomobilist Jekaterinburg winning in five, struggled against Metallurg Magnitogorsk but manage to get it done in six, then the conference finals went down the wire but Bob Hartley’s side managed to squeak past three-time Gagarin Cup champions AkBars Kazan in overtime of Game 7.
Both teams have had some excellent goaltending on their side. While CSKA’s Lars Johansson has been nearly perfect averaging 1.00 GAA with a 96.1 Sv%. What’s more impressive about his numbers is that he has played 17 games during the playoffs so far with a total of 1085:15 ice time while earning 12 victories. Simon Hrubec wasn’t the go-to guy for Avangard at the start of the playoffs and understandably so – Bob Hartley has always liked Igor Bobkov in his net and the import limit didn’t help the Czech goalies case either. Since Bobkov struggled and Hrubec took over he has been excellent and currently sits behind only Lars Johansson in save percentage with 95.4%. In the goals against category, Hrubec is only sixth but still with an impressive average of 1.43. Johansson has recorded six shutouts while Hrubec stands with three. What does this tell us about the goaltending? It’s pretty solid for both teams. There’s an edge to Johansson who also has more experience in this situation but if anything – we might not see a lot of goals in the final.
On the offensive side of the game, Max Shalunov stands out the most – the CSKA forward has scored 10 goals in 17 games, he also ranks third in points with fifteen and is only behind his teammate Konstantin Okulov and Avangard’s Sergei Tolchinsky who are both tied for first place in points. Both players have 16 points (5G11A). CSKA’s second line is a definitive threat but they have the depth to add some scoring help from anyone in the line-up. Meanwhile, it’s much more wide-open for Avangard. There are so many wildcards on that squad. Ilya Kovalchuk has come in the clutch a few times, Klim Kostin has had some big games, Reid Boucher has been an absolute treat to watch and has done a lot. Their depth up-front has all the qualities you’d want and you don’t know when and who might get hot. The only issue – Avangard team can suddenly fall flat and they have really hurt themselves with unnecessary penalties on many occasions.
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Defensively both teams have been playing a safe game without giving up too much space in their respective zones. There are a few guys that can jump the gun and join the attack – Mat Robinson for CSKA Moscow who hasn’t had the loudest post-season as opposed to years prior but he’s still decent. Avangard has weapons like Ville Pokka, Oliwer Kaski but as mentioned before – they have to juggle their imports as they can only have five on the game roster. Alexei Bereglazov has been exccellent. Which teams are better on defense? I don’t know – we’ll figure that out on the ice when the time comes.
Prediction: Avangard Omsk will have to get going offensively, apply pressure to win the Gagarin Cup. If anyone – it’s Bob Hartley who can figure out a way to defeat CSKA and the series won’t be one-sided. However, I believe that CSKA won’t be lifting the trophy. The Omsk team will be the new Gagarin Cup Champions. It’ll take no less than six games though.