The current KHL playoffs were distinguished by unpredictability of results

The current KHL playoffs were distinguished by unpredictability of results

The semifinal stage of the Gagarin Cup, which opens today, is a continuation of the playoffs, which can already be considered a breakthrough for the Kontinental Hockey League. The championship, which has always been distinguished by the exceptional strength of its hierarchy, this time finally abandoned its unattractive feature, having managed to present a whole scattering of ups of formal outsiders and downfalls of formal favorites. This feature of the current playoffs adds intrigue to the confrontations in the semi-final pairs, which pitted Lokomotiv against Traktor, and Metallurg against Avtomobilist.

The semifinal stage of the Fonbet play-offs of the KHL championship begins with matches in which Lokomotiv takes on Traktor on Tuesday, and Metallurg takes on Avtomobilist on Wednesday. But even before its start, the current Gagarin Cup had to be recognized as very special, almost historical. The fact is that he broke a trend that seemed reinforced concrete.

Among the signature features and generic, perhaps, troubles of the KHL, a certain predictability has always stood out, resulting from the exceptional strength and stability of the hierarchy. In its entire history, that is, since 2008, the league has not produced a single truly unexpected winner of the Gagarin Cup. Such that, for example, before the season he was rated low, like an average player, and then suddenly acquired the status of a giant. Well, or, at least, during the championship he would have experienced such serious problems that just getting into the playoffs could be considered happiness. All the champions were grandees whose willingness to fight for the main prize was beyond doubt.

There were some truly unexpected finalists. But this is a short list, and all of them - HC MVD, Atlant, Lev - shone, in fact, at the dawn of the existence of the KHL, which later made efforts to equalize the opportunities by introducing, say, at the end of the previous decade, a hard salary ceiling. But for a long time the effect from them was rather weak. In any case, not in such a way as to seriously argue that in terms of the level of competition, which, as is known, stimulates spectator interest, the domestic league is approaching the NHL: in it such breakthroughs as last year’s one performed by the Florida Panthers, somehow leaked into the playoffs and then reached the finals have long been perceived as the norm.

In Russia, the norm remained to advance through the play-off bracket strictly in accordance with the “seeding” based on the results of the regular season. And in order to count the cases when a club with a “seeding” lower than that of an opponent defeated him, five fingers would not have been enough for the last time in 2016. Then six of them would need to be bent. Over the next seven years, there were no seasons when the nominal underdogs beat the nominal favorites in at least five series in total over the four rounds of the playoffs. Four formal sensations occurred in 2017, 2019 and 2023, three each in 2018 and 2022, in 2021 there were only two (in 2020, the Gagarin Cup was interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic). Moreover, a significant part of them occurred in the semi-finals and finals, in which the degree of competition is, by definition, higher than in those that precede them.

And from this point of view, the current playoffs really look like either a grandiose victory, finally achieved in a stubborn and, it seemed, doomed to failure struggle for the desired instability of the hierarchy and unpredictability, or some kind of one-time sports anomaly of extreme proportions. Behind us is a surprisingly fun regular season with a lot of interesting results and two breathtaking rounds of the playoffs. Along the way, CSKA, which won the Gagarin Cup in 2022 and 2023, assembled a great roster of Ak Bars, Dynamo, which was the champion in the regular season, and the mighty SKA, were eliminated. And there are already five cases, rare as the Amur tiger for Russian hockey, with winnings by clubs that had a “seeding” lower than their opponents. Traktor and Avtomobilist each recorded two such successes. The Chelyabinsk team knocked out Salavat Yulaev and Dynamo, the Ekaterinburg team knocked out Ak Bars and SKA. Another point for the group of “paper” outsiders was brought by Lokomotiv, which broke through to the semi-finals, defeating Avangard, and at the same time proved that the reason for the anomaly was not the adjusted play-off format, which pitted clubs from different conferences in the second round, but of which theoretically could be much stronger than the other. But no, not only eastern clubs, but also representatives of the West refuted ideas based on stereotypes.

The turbulence of this play-off seems to have a side effect of sorts. Remembering him, it’s somehow even stupid, trying to figure out the layouts in the semi-final series, to be based on previous dogmas. Previous dogmas would have forced, when choosing future finalists, to confidently point to Metallurg and Lokomotiv, which, of course, if we take the season as a whole, were both more stable and brighter than their opponents. The strange reality of spring 2024 forces us to focus on other factors. Let's say that Lokomotiv, whose series with Avangard stretched to the maximum distance, did not have any time to rest before the battle with Traktor. And the Chelyabinsk team, on the contrary, having eliminated Dynamo “dry”, in four matches, had a good rest and recovered. Or the fact that the leaders of “Metallurg” - Danila Yurov, Roman Kantserov, Ilya Nabokov - are incredibly young, and “Avtomobilist” in the first two stages extremely convincingly dealt with teams that had an order of magnitude more seasoned frontmen, literally infuriating them with their discipline and toughness. In general, there is hardly any April forecast related to the KHL that will make even an ounce of sense.

Alexey Dospehov

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