Shaping the playoff race

3 February 2021 , , , , ,

The Dragons might be out of playoff contention, but the team will still have a big say in who goes to post season. Our upcoming three-game home stand pits us against Spartak and Vityaz, who are neck-and-neck in a race to make the top eight in the West. In between, we face Jokerit for the first time this season with the Finns still looking for points to stamp their ticket to the second phase.

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Spartak Moscow (Feb. 3)

Last time out: When we met earlier in the season, a brave fightback by the Dragons fell just short. After trailing 1-4, we eventually got it back to 4-5 before an empty-net goal killed the game. However, our last home game against Spartak was a different story, with Trevor Murphy’s power play goal giving an overtime win back in December 2019.

Familiar faces: Martin Bakos, the Slovak forward who played in our first KHL campaign, is now with Spartak and has 25 (12+13) points in 39 games this season. On our side, though, there’s a large ex-Spartak contingent. Most of Slava Leshchenko’s KHL career was spent in Red-and-White. After joining Spartak in 2015, he played four full seasons before moving on during the 2019/20 campaign. Another player who joined us during the season, Gleb Shashkov, began his career at Spartak and played 41 games in three seasons. On defense, Viktor Baldayev and Ruslan Pedan also played for the Muscovites. In addition, our injured forward Casey Wellman made his first KHL appearances at Spartak, collecting 16 (8+8) points in 40 games back in 2015/16

Background: Spartak is embroiled in a big battle to make the playoffs. For head coach Oleg Znarok, a three-time Gagarin Cup winner, this is almost uncharted territory. The much-titled coach, who also has a World and Olympic championship title on his resume, only once failed to make the playoffs in the KHL, way back in 2008/09 when he was learning his trade behind the bench at MVD. A year later, he took the unheralded Moscow Region team all the way to the final and set a path towards glory.

Spartak’s task in its remaining nine games is to pick up more points than Vityaz. The two are locked on 52 points at present, and neither has been in strong form of late. The Red-and-Whites hoped that the return of leading scorer Jori Lehtera would give the team a lift, but a 0-5 loss at home to SKA when he rejoined the team rather deflated that optimism. That said, with 36 points in 31 games prior to the injury that ruled him out for over six weeks, Lehtera has been a key part of the offense.

Jokerit Helsinki (Feb. 5)

Last time out: It’s a long time since the Dragons got a win over Jokerit – way back to 2017, and a 6-3 win in Beijing. Last season, we twice lost out by a single goal and our planned game in Helsinki earlier this year was cancelled at the 11th hour and will be played on Feb. 11.

Familiar faces: It’s another chance to catch up with our former forward Veli-Matti Savinainen, who scored 18 (9+9) points in 37 games for us in the 2018/19 season.

Background: A bit like Spartak, Jokerit is still looking to secure its playoff place. True, the Finns are rather better placed and enjoy a seven-point gap over ninth place, but Lauri Marjamaki’s team still needs a few more points to get over the line. The club had to contend with a stop-start regular season, often missing games due to coronavirus. This was partly due to different public health legislation in Finland, which forced the postponement of our game in Helsinki when one member of the backroom staff tested positive in a preliminary test at the airport. Jokerit’s prospects weren’t helped by yielding home ice advantage to enable a couple of postponed games to be rearranged as double-headers at the opposition’s arena.

Against that background, it’s not surprising that the team’s form has been unpredictable. After a promising start to the season, all the disruption has contributed to a sequence of alternating a couple of wins here and a couple of losses there. The team was further affected by the start of the NHL season, with on-loan defenseman Mikko Lehtonen and forward Eeli Tolvanen going back over the Atlantic. Lehtonen, in particular, is a big miss after contributing a point a game in the early part of the season. Recently, though, unexpected help has arrived from Antti Pihlstrom. Usually a fourth liner, he scored three goals in two games as Jokerit recorded back-to-back wins for the first time since the end of December.

Vityaz Moscow Region (Feb. 7)

Last time out: It wasn’t long ago – back on Jan 25 – when we suffered a 0-3 loss in Podolsk. Our last home game against Vityaz saw Luke Lockhart give us a shoot-out win.

Familiar faces: Two of our D-men, Vojtech Mozik and Alexander Yevseyenkov, previously played for Vityaz.

Background: Once again, the Dragons face an opponent fighting to make the playoffs. At the time of writing, Vityaz is in eighth place but leads Spartak by the narrowest of margins – winning more games in regulation. The outcome of those two teams’ visits to Mytishchi could yet have a big bearing on who makes this year’s playoffs.

Last week’s game in Podolsk saw Lauris Daugavins set a new record. His second-period goal took him to 45 points for the season, and no Latvian player has scored more in a single KHL campaign. It’s possible that this fixture will see another record, with Justin Danforth looking to improve on the most productive season for a Vityaz player. At the time of writing he has 49 points, two short of Alexei Kopeikin’s record of 51.

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