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Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Gagarin Cup Finals, Finally

Valery Nichushkin may be pulling on a Russia jersey a bit sooner than Traktor Chelyabinsk fans would like.  (photo via The Farm Club)
Well.  Here we are, already two games deep into the 2012-13 Finals, and no mention of it on these pages!  Oh, end of the academic term, you are a harsh mistress.  Anyhoo, we shall do this in Homeric fashion, and begin in medias res.

More below the jump.

As you are no doubt already aware, this year's final features the number 3 seeds from each conference, in Dynamo Moscow and Traktor Chelyabinsk (Dynamo, technically, had the second-most points in the West, but finished behind SKA St. Petersburg in their division).  The two teams came into the playoffs with almost identical goals-for-&-against totals: 150-115 for Dynamo, and 152-120 for Traktor.  Of course, Dynamo picked up 29 of their goals from the combined talents of Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, now lost to the Washington Capitals, while Traktor avoided the post-lockout blues by the simple expedient of not signing any itinerant NHLers at all.

Traktor's route to the finals has been, well, strange.  First of all, they went down 2 games to 0 to Barys Astana in the first round, with both of those losses coming in Chelyabinsk, before recovering to win in 7.  Then Michael Garnett began channeling Vlad Tretiak, as Traktor posted 4 shutouts in a 5-game second-round triumph over Avangard Omsk.  The Conference Finals saw the team from Chelyabinsk once again fall behind, this time to 3 to 1 to Ak Bars Kazan, before winning three games on the trot to take the series.  Traktor have gotten a significant part of their offensive production in the playoffs from Petri Kontiola and Jan Bulis, who've combined for 18 goals in 21 games, and they have three players among the top five scoring defenseman in this year's post-season.  Valery Nichushkin, who turned 18 just a month ago and is going to be very interesting to track at the upcoming NHL draft, has potted a very respectable 6 goals, although he's cooled off since the series against Barys.

There's actually some controversy surrounding Nichushkin in this series.  The IIHF U18 World Championships start this month in Sochi, and Nichushkin is eligible to play for Russia.  This fact led to the sort of club-vs.-country dispute that's quite familiar to fans of international soccer.  Judging from a tweet this past weekend, the national team has won this particular fight, as Nichushkin will leave Traktor after game 4 of the Gagarin Cup finals to join his U18 team-mates.  However, I'm not entirely certain that the situation is completely resolved, and it certainly bears watching.

For Dynamo Moscow, the road to their second successive finals has been far less fraught.  The former KGB men swept Slovan Bratislava, and then eased by CSKA in five.  All signs pointed to a much tougher Conference Finals, against SKA, but Dynamo rushed out to a 3-0 lead in that series and ended up winning in six.  Two players have borne the primary responsibility for Dynamo's success. Forward Jakub Petruzalek, acquired from Amur near the trade deadline to replace some of the offense lost to the NHL, posted only 1 assist in 10 regular-season games for Dynamo, but he's been on fire in the playoffs (15 gp, 7-7-14).  And goalie Alexander Yeryomenko has, at .938, the 5th-best save percentage in these playoffs.

Now, the finals are of course already well underway.  The series is moving to Chelyabinsk, with Dynamo up 2 games to 0.  So it's not looking good at all for Traktor.  On the other hand, both the games were very close, decided by a single goal each.  Furthermore, as noted above, Traktor have been behind by two games twice already in this post-season, and prevailed both times, so there's a chance!  It's just not a very good chance, at this point...

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