Table-toppers and basement dwellers

4 February 2023

The Dragons are lining up for their penultimate home game of the campaign when Ak Bars comes to Mytishchi on Sunday. Then we have a run of road games at Severstal, Salavat Yulaev and Sochi as our longest-ever regular season enters its final month. It’s a run of fixtures that includes the 2023 form team from Kazan, plus this season’s perennial struggler from the Black Sea.


Ak Bars Kazan (home, Feb. 5, 1700 Moscow Time)

Last time out: The Dragons travelled to Kazan in December and suffered a 1-3 reverse. Cliff Pu got our consolation goal against an Ak Bars team under the guidance of interim head coach Yury Babenko.

Familiar faces: None

Background: Ak Bars has enjoyed a stunning turnaround in 2023, and is currently top of the Eastern Conference. You’d have got long odds on that back in November, when Oleg Znarok’s team dropped out of the playoff spots in the East altogether and Tatarstan’s blogosphere was rife with rumors of a team locked in conflict with itself. Change started in December: Znarok left his post as head coach and Zinetula Bilyaletdinov returned. Initially, the three-time Gagarin Cup winner held an advisory role, but by the end of the month he was confirmed as the new head coach. Coach Bill is a proven winner, and he has further embellished his legendary status by transforming his team. In 14 games from Dec. 30, Ak Bars won 12 and went to OT in the other two. That sequence came to an end at SKA on Friday, when the Western Conference’s runaway leader powered to a 7-4 win, but it was good enough to put Ak Bars on top of the table in the East.

Severstal Cherepovets (away, Feb. 7, 1900 Moscow Time)

Last time out: Our visit to Cherepovets a month ago was a rollercoaster of a game. Red Star was down 1-3, then led 5-3, but eventually fell to a 5-6 loss. German Tochilkin potted his first KHL goal in that encounter.

Familiar faces: None

Background: The Steelmen are chasing a playoff place – and recent evidence suggests that Andrei Razin’s men are on a tear. The last three games brought three victories, and all against powerful opposition. A 4-1 success at defending champion CSKA started the run, then Severstal returned home to defeat Metallurg by the same margin before blanking Lokomotiv 3-0. However, the winning run has not yet secured a post-season ticket: Severstal is only four points ahead of ninth-placed Spartak, despite the latter’s four-game skid. Roman Abrosimov is currently in a rich vein of form. He had a hand in all four of his team’s goals against Metallurg, then got the opener in the shut-out success against Lokomotiv.

Salavat Yulaev Ufa (away, Feb. 9, 1700 Moscow Time)

Last time out: Our only game against Ufa this season ended in a 1-4 loss on home ice back in November. Despite a goal from Parker Foo after 90 seconds, the Dragons lost out with Ivan Drozdov scoring twice for the visitor.

Familiar faces: None

Background: Salavat Yulaev’s season perhaps encapsulates this year’s Eastern Conference. At times brilliant, Viktor Kozlov’s team has never been able to truly dominate. There’s a tendency to build streaks of three or four games, then go into a slump of similar duration. That explains why the section is so tight: at the time of writing, Ufa is in sixth place, eight points clear of Neftekhimik in ninth but only six adrift of Ak Bars and Sibir at the top of the pile. Individual performances have been similar, with Sergei Shmelyov perhaps the only player to score consistently through the campaign. It’s fair to point out that Ufa has suffered with injuries, losing star import Josh Ho-Sang early in the campaign and missing key defenseman Ryan Murphy for 20 games. At this stage, though, Kozlov’s main target will surely be to get his team hot for the playoffs and hope it can find the consistency that has eluded it in the regular season.

HC Sochi (away, Feb. 11, 1930 Moscow Time)

Last time out: We’ve won all four of our meetings with the Leopards this season, most recently a 5-1 thrashing in Mytishchi in January. Zhang Zesen got his first KHL assist in that game, with Parker Foo scoring twice.

Familiar faces: None

Background: Sochi will be happy to reach the end of this season. The Black Sea team has struggled throughout, disposing of two head coaches along the way. Constant changes behind the bench haven’t helped, and neither has a steady string of departing players. During the 2022/23 season, the likes of Vasily Glotov, Ilya Kruglov, Nikita Popugayev, Nikita Zorkin and Andrei Altybarmakyan have all left the club. Those five all joined SKA, and those trades left the club without a core of promising players that could have moved the team forward.

Despite those challenges, the Leopards continue to battle. The team, now coached by Dmitry Kokarev, only has seven wins this season. However, it showed great resilience to claim the most recent of those, a 4-3 success at Spartak on Jan. 31.

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