Thursday, September 4, 2008
Snow Leopards Maul Siberian Hawks: the KHL Descends Upon Us
This week saw the first regular reason action of the much anticipated Kontinental Hockey League. The KHL is essentially the old Russian Super League reconstituted with a few new teams from former Soviet republics and, more importantly, an infusion of cash from state sponsored oil giant Gazprom and other psuedo-national, mega-companies that are, apparently, swimming in money compared to just a few years ago. Consequently, the new league is throwing tons of cash at players in Europe and, gasp!, even the NHL, and has already succeeded in stealing star-in-the-making Alexander Radulov away from the Nashville Predators and into the waiting and ruble-filled arms of Salavat Yulayev Ufa. Radulov scored 26-goals as a 21-year old on a defensive team and with little quality power play time. That's wildly impressive. But of course, because he is no longer playing in the NHL, he is by definition a mediocre player. Much in the same way that governments the US supports are by definition "democracies" and those the US opposes are "terrorists." But I digress.
I've always been a fan of the Russian players because of their skills with the puck and offensive creativity: criss-crossing rushes, drop passes, the dipsy-doodles, etc. Much of this comes from the fact that the game, as in all of Europe, is played on a wider ice-surface, meaning there is less collisions with opposing players, more time and space with the puck, less play along the boards, less shots on net, etc. It's a bit of a different game, and I like watching the European game from time to time. The new KHL has accumulated by far the best talent outside of the NHL, including some very good non-Russian players, like Jaromir Jagr, Pavel Rosa, Ray Emrey, Niko Kapanen, Mattias Weinhandl, and Mark Hartigan, to name a few. It should be an interesting season and I plan on posting some recaps and thoughts from the KHL throughout the year.
Up first is the first game for two of my favorite teams, Avangard Omsk vs. Ak Bars Kazan. The grudge match between the always wily Hawks and the ever elegant Snow Leopards. Omsk lies in Siberia and was previously owned by Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich before he sold to Gazprom. Ak Bars is run by Taftnet, the local oil company, and treasure of the state of Tartarstan. The Tartars are a particularly proud ethnic bunch, I hear. Omsk is led by Jagr who plays on an all Czech line, with former LA King Pavel Rosa (a nifty and highly skilled player, very under-appreciated in NA hockey fan circles) and former Washington Capital Jakub Klepis. Omsk also has NY Ranger draft pick Alexei Cherepanov, who is going to be one of the top scorers in the NHL one day, mark my words. Ak Bars is my team from the lockout year when they loaded up on talent to celebrate the city's 1,000th year anniversary (Russia is an old country) but which ended in failure and a first-round loss. They won the title the following year though (1,001 years is still pretty cool) on the strength of the best line in European hockey for three years now, Alexei Morozov (my former favorite player), Sergei Zinovjev, and Denis Zaripov.
I thought the game was very fast-paced and filled with intensity and obvious skill. Generally, games on the large ice are thought to be more tactical, more of a chess-mass, lots of possession, less "random crazy shit," as I would put it, happening than in an NHL game. But I didn't find that to be the case, for better or worse I'm not sure, in this game. The puck was changing possession constantly, and though there was some serious high end skill, there was also a fair amount of sloppy play. I thought the players were moving too fast for their hands and heads to catch up some of the time, creating turnovers in the neutral zone and at the blue lines. Of course, there were much less hits than an NHL game, but far more dump-ins than I was expecting. I guess when teams line up five defenders at the red line, what can you do?
Jagr looked alot like the Jagr from the beginning of last season on the Rangers. He was controlling the puck well down low, but struggling to create real scoring chances (though he did set up the game's first score). He was, however looking to shoot, like the Jagr of the end of last season, and fired numerous wristers either into the body of former Islanders back-up Wade Dubielewicz or off the back boards. You have to imagine at some point those are going to go in and Jagr should challenge, along with maybe Radulov and Morozov, for the point scoring title. Cherry looked good early but hardly played the second half of the game, with Jagr taking his shifts. Hopefully, it was a minor injury and not some silly head coaching move, but with those wacky Russian coaches, you really never know. As for Ak Bars, Morozov and Zaripov are beautiful together (Zinovjev is out injured it seems). Zaripov scored on an laser beam from the slot (2nd goal in the highlights), a top-level NHL wrist-shot for sure. With the game tied late in the 3rd, it was Morozov time; the captain scored two goals, the first on a slapper down the left wing (don't think I ever saw him do that in a Penguins uniform) and the second on a beautiful set-up from Zaripov which sent the water bottle flying (I highly recommend watching it multiple times). I don't think there's any doubt (and the good NHL GM's know this) that he could put up big points in the right situation in the NHL, but when you see how happy Alexei is after he scores each of the last two, it starts to make sense as to why he's not interested in the NHL anymore (it also makes sense when you consider how much happier his insanely hot wife probably is in Russia). Grigori Shafigulin (who I remember really liking from the 2005 World Junior team) scored on a pretty 3-on-4 shorthanded breakaway, a goal which turned the tide for Kazan. It was a good first effort from what I predict will be two of the top teams in the League. The game, especially the second half, was marred by an endless parade to the penalty box and almost constant and ineffective power plays, often from borderline penalty calls. Hey, maybe the KHL and NHL aren't so different after all?