Russia’s top hockey tournament has given Russian fans the matchup of heavyweights they have been clamoring for during this entire season. The Gagarin Cup’s Conference Finals feature matchups between the top two seeds in both the KHL’s Western and Eastern Conferences- SKA St. Petersburg and CSKA Moscow in the West, and AK Bars Kazan and Avangard Omsk in the East. Unfortunately for these fans, these matchups have not, so far, lived up to the high drama that fans were almost certainly hoping to see.
SKA and CSKA are Russian sport’s equivalent to the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. Both of them trace their origins to sports societies of the Russian Army (the “SKA” initials in both are latinized acronyms for “Sports Club of the Army”), SKA dating back to the post-WWII period of Soviet history, while CSKA traces its origins even further, to the armed forces of the Russian Empire, though in its current form it began in 1946.
The contest between these two clubs is often called “The Army Derby” for reasons that should be obvious from the previous paragraph. It is also called the “Capital Cities Derby,” representing the fact that Moscow and St. Petersburg have both been capitals of Russia in its history. Beyond their historic status as capitals, each represents the two directions in which Russian civilization has been pulled throughout its history, with St. Petersburg pointing in the direction of Europe, while Moscow symbolizing the more Eurasian aspects of Russian civilization.
SKA in particular has a unique marquee status among KHL clubs. It holds a kind of special relationship with Russian national hockey; its head coach, Valeri Bragin, is the longtime coach of Russia’s men’s national team. The Russian gold medal winning team at the 2018 Winter Olympics was primarily composed of players from SKA. CSKA may have more recently had the greater club success, winning the Gagarin Cup in 2018–19 (the 2019–20 season was cancelled due to the pandemic), however SKA entered the 2021 conference finals as a slight favorite due to its superior regular season record.
However, so far in the series, CSKA has totally stymied their rivals in St. Petersburg, taking a three games to none lead. This success is due primarily to outstanding goaltending by CSKA keeper Lars Johansson. As his name suggests, Johansson is not a Russian, but a Swede. He has been one of the most outstanding goaltenders in the KHL in recent years, leading the league in goals against average in both 2018 and 2020.
However, those number come with the caveat that during that time Johansson was CSKA’s backup goalie, only becoming the starter in 2020–21 after incumbent Ilya Sorokin joined the New York Islanders of the NHL. Seizing his opportunity, Johansson has been particularly superb against SKA, allowing only two goals in the first three games of this series. If SKA is to somehow come back in this series, they will need to find a way through his superlative netminding.
Over in the Eastern Conference, one of the conference final teams there also features non-Russians in a pivotal role, including behind the bench. Bob Hartley, a native of Quebec, has a long and storied career coaching hockey in North America. As coach of the Colorado Avalanche, he led them to a Stanley Cup title in 2001. He led the ill-fated Atlanta Thrashers to their only playoff appearance in 2006–2007, and the Calgary Flames’ only playoff series win of this decade came under him. However, Hartley’s harsh coaching style inevitably caused burnout among his players, and he found himself fired from each of these teams in turn.
In Russia, however, Hartley’s style might even be considered mild compared to the greats of Soviet hockey coaching such as the legendary Viktor Tikhonov. With Avangard Omsk, Hartley is seeking to become the second coach in hockey history to win both the Stanley Cup and Gagarin Cup. The first would be the infamous Mike Keenan, who won the Stanley Cup with the New York Rangers in 1994 and the Gagarin with Metallurg Magnitogorsk in 2014.
Opposing Avangard in the Eastern Finals is AK Bars Kazan, a KHL franchise much less internationally famous than SKA or CSKA but actually has an even greater track record of success. Since the inauguration of the Gagarin Cup in 2008, Kazan has won it three times, to SKA’s two and CSKA’s one (Omsk has never won but reached the finals two times). Head coach Dmitri Kvartalnov, a native Russian who played in the NHL with the Boston Bruins, has adopted a more fast-paced, “speed chess” type system, that saw the clinch the top seed in the East.
So far, however, Avangard has been the better in the series, leading two games to one. Hartley’s squad is an interesting mix, featuring a wide variety of players of different ages and backgrounds. There is former NHL star Ilya Kovalchuk, reunited for Hartley after once playing for him in Atlanta. There are also young Russians such as Yegor Chinakov, the Columbus Blue Jackets’ first round draft pick in 2020. And, finally, there are imports from North America playing key roles, such as Michigan native Reid Boucher and Canadian Corban Knight.
The story of the 2020–21 KHL playoffs is far from resolved. The third game of the Eastern Conference finals was must win for Kazan after losing the first two games of the series at home, however they rallied to win Game 3. SKA has a deeper hole to climb out of at a three games to none deficit, however a comeback is still possible. An anticlimactic end to either or both series would surely be a disappointment to KHL fans across Russia. However, the prestige of all four clubs is as high as could be. No matter what two teams advance to the final round of the Gagarin Cup, it should present KHL fans with a compelling matchup to close out their hockey season.