In the Western Conference, SKA Saint Petersburg (Sporting Club of the Army - Saint Petersburg), winners of the Bobrov Division as well as the Kontinental Cup as regular season champions with 115 points, was the #1 seed and drew Atlant Moscow Oblast, the #8 seed with 73 points. SKA advanced to the conference semifinals winning 4 and losing just 1.
#2 seed CSKA Moscow (Tarasov Division champions with 96 points), led by Alexander Radulov's KHL second best 68 points in 48 games, swept the Czech team Lev Praha (Prague) in four straight games. Defending champions Dynamo Moscow (101 points) and #3 seed, gave another foreign-based team, Slovan Bratislava of Slovakia, the same treatment and ousted them in four as well.
The first upset of the playoffs came when #5 Severstal Cherepovets (85 points) defeated the reborn Lokomotiv Yaroslavl (92 points), who returned to the KHL after being forced to miss the previous season in the wake of the air disaster that claimed the lives of the entire team who were on their way to their opening match of the 2011-12 season. Severstal prevailed 4 games to 2.
Over in the Eastern Conference, #1 Ak Bars Kazan (Kharlamov Division winners with 104 points) faced #8 Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk (77 points) and advance easily with a 4-0 sweep. #2 Avangard Omsk (Chemyshev Division winners with 102 points) had a far more difficult time and needed the full seven games to oust Sibir Novosibrisk 4 games to 3.
Unsure at one point if their arena would be fit for use after sustaining damage late in the season when the region was struck by a meteor from outer space, Traktor Chelyabinsk (98 points) were able to host the playoffs as scheduled and also needed the full seven games to defeat Barys Astana of Kazakhstan 4 games to 3.
The third series in the east to go the full seven games was #5 Salavat Yulaev Ufa upsetting #4 Metallurg Magnitogorsk, whose roster boasted 2013 KHL scoring champion Sergei Mozyakin but were certainly missing the departed NHLer Evgeni Malkin, who finished third in season long scoring with 65 points in 37 games despite missing 15 games of the KHL season when he returned to the Pittsburgh Penguins of the NHL.
The teams were then reseeded for the Conference semifinals with #1 SKA Saint Petersburg, led by leading scorer Norwegian Patrick Thoresen, sweeping #5 Severstal Cherepovets in four straight in the west. In a battle of Moscow clubs, #3 Dynamo took care of their historic rivals #2 CSKA 4 games to 1 to advance to face Saint Petersburg in the Western Conference Finals.
Meanwhile, in the Eastern Conference, #3 Traktor Chelaybinsk had an easy time in their 4 games to 1 defeat of #2 Avangard Omsk. In the other series, #1 seed in the east Ak Bars Kazan and leading scorer Nikolai Zherdev and the evergreen Alexi Morozov outlasted Salavat Yalaev Ufa in the only series of the round which went the full seven games, which left the other three winners plenty of time to rest and recover.
The Conference Finals get underway today when SKA plays Game 1 against Dynamo, with Game 2 quickly following tomorrow, the same day Ak Bars and Traktor take to the ice to begin their Eastern Conference series to determine which of the two will play for the Gagarin Cup.
Today's featured jersey is a 2012-13 SKA Saint Petersburg Ilya Kovalchuk jersey as worn by the NHLer early in the season while the NHL lockout was still in effect. Up until mid-January of 2013, more than 40 NHL players, the majority of them Russians, such as Evgeni Malkin and Alexander Ovechkin.
KHL rules stipulated that teams could add up to three NHL players, with only one non-Russian allowed. These limits were put in place in order to to prevent an excessive amount of Russians losing their places on their teams as well as avoiding an over-reliance on NHLers, as KHL officials knew the NHLers were a short-term prospect, confident that the labor dispute in North America would be concluding at any time.
While in most leagues 66 seasons and no titles to show for it would be a cause for ridicule, not unlike baseball's Chicago Cubs, but the tilted system of Soviet hockey in favor of perennial champions CSKA (Central Red Army), 32 titles in 46 years and 13 in a row from 1978 to 1990, takes some of the heat of SKA as few, if any, clubs other than perhaps Moscow Dynamo were winning any championships either.
Still, SKA has never even made the finals and has not seized the opportunity of a more level playing field in effect since the demise of the Soviet Union, unlike Dynamo Moscow, Lada Togliatti, Ak Bars Kazan, Metallurg Magnitogorsk, Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, Avangard Omsk and Salavat Yulaev Ufa and , who have all won multiple titles since 1992.
SKA does have some hardware to brag about though, having won the Spengler Cup four times, 1970 and 1971, 1977 and most recently in 2010. Domestically, the were runners up in the Soviet League Cup in 1968 and 1971 and took third in the league championship in both 1971 and 1987. With a trophy case that bare after over six decades of play, Saint Petersburg will be motivated and hungry to capture this year's Gagarin Cup and now find themselves just seven wins away from their ultimate, and long awaited, goal.
Of note, with the expansion of the KHL beyond the borders of Russia, the league no longer customizes player jerseys with the names on the back in Cyrillic, changing to English in 2011-12.