After five months of the regular season the top 16 clubs in the KHL have made it through to the play-offs. RT tried to find out, who has the best chances of lifting the Gagarin Cup this year.
The fifth KHL season has been a strange one: time during the NHL lock-out when North American-based players flooded the rosters, and the time after the lock-out ended, with stars returning across the Atlantic.
The clubs affected most were in the Western Conference. Before the New Year Dynamo Moscow looked a good bet to defend their Gagarin Cup title, but since Aleksandr Ovechkin and Niklas Backstrom returned to Washington, Oleg Znarok’s side haven’t looked the same.
CSKA Moscow also lost Pavel Datsyuk and Mikhail Grabovsky. Yet they look set to go far in the play-offs, having the best defensive record in the league, which is always crucial in the post-season, and Aleksandr Radulov – one of the league’s top goal scorers.
However, this could finally be the year of SKA St. Petersburg. They miss Ilya Kovalchuk and Vladimir Tarasenko, but still have an excellent mix of offense and defense, and had a seven game winning streak snapped just before the postseason.
Also look out for Lev Prague. The league debutants may not boast a strong offence, but they're certainly hot having not lost in regular time in their last six games.
Teams from the East have won three out of the four Gagarin Cups since the KHL was set up – and it’s easy to see them adding a fourth.
Metallurg Magnitogrosk were one of the on form teams during the lock-out but since being deprived of Evgeny Malkin, Sergey Gonchar and Nikolay Kulemin they've faded badly, and have only just snapped a five-game losing streak. In Sergey Mozyakin they have a player who scores for fun notching up 76 points in 48 games.
Avangard, who lost the Eastern Conference title to Ak Bars, have a very powerful offence and, apart from winger Sergey Kostitsyn, weren't hit hard, post-lockout. However, the Omsk side aren't in the best of form.
So could AK Bars win a third title? They have a well-balanced squad as well as a deep and experienced roster, and are sure to go far.
And it'll be worth keeping a look out for Traktor, who have some of the league's best young talents Evgeny Kuznetsov, but are very inconsistent.
However, all the speculation aside, once the play-offs begin this week, we will have a much better idea of who will be in contention to lift the Gagarin Cup in April.
Playoff conference quarterfinal matchups:
Ak Bars Kazan – Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk
Avangard Omsk – Sibir Novosibirsk
Traktor Chelyabinsk – Barys Astana
Metallurg Magnitogorsk – Salavat Yulaev Ufa
SKA St. Petersburg – Atlant Moscow Region
CSKA Moscow – Lev Prague
Dynamo Moscow – Slovan Bratislava
Lokomotiv Yaroslavl – Severstal Cherepovets