The regular season of Russia's Hockey Superliga is limping to the finish. Recent TV ratings show that the World Biathlon Championship, a sport which the majority of Americans would incorrectly identify with running and biking, is a much bigger draw for Russian television viewers than hockey, a sport reputedly second in popularity here. This strikes me as rather strange. As reported two issues ago, NHL labor difficulties have forced over 70 world-class players to ply their trade in such exciting and vibrant metropolii as Magnitogorsk and Tol'yatti. The end result is that the quality of play in the Superliga this year is remarkably high. So why are Russia's sports fans preferring dull biathlons, a sport that combines cross-country skiing with shooting at stationary targets? Perhaps Russians see the biathlon as a veiled metaphor for their snowy existence. Perhaps, as my esteemed colleague Mr. Brecher would point out, the Russians want to keep an eye on the Finns, just in case another Winter War develops.
Whatever the case, the condition of Russian hockey could be worse. In Sweden a scandal has rocked the hockey world as three players allegedly took a completely drunk woman back to their hotel room and, well, in hockey terminology, scored one after another into an empty net. Meanwhile in Canada, the NHL lockout has Canadians wondering whether they still have a reason to live - and the answer of course is a resounding "no way, ay."
Anyway, look for the start of the intriguing 2005 Russian hockey playoff season on March 18, broadcast on Sport and NTV+. All series are best-of-5. In the first round, the first seed plays the eighth seed, second plays the seventh and so on. To whet your appetite, below are team capsules for all the playoff teams. (Records and statistics are current through 58 games.)
1st seed - Dinamo (Moscow)
Goals for/Goals against: 169/104
Players to Watch: Aleksandr Ovechkin, Aleksandr Frolov, Pavel Datsyuk
Why They'll Win: When healthy, they have more depth at the forward position than any other team in the league. For example, owner of the sweetest "hockey hands" in the world Pavel Datsyuk, natural goal-scorer Pavel Rosa, 19-year-old phenom Aleksandr Ovechkin, blazing fast Maxim Afinogenov and super slippery Sergei Samsonov. They also hold a psychological edge over most of the other teams, having compiled a winning record against almost every other playoff team (the exception being Lada). Their goaltending, embodied in the person of Vitaly Eremeev, is solid.
Why They Won't Win: Recently their coach broke out the famous People Will's quote, "Chem khuzhe, tem luchshe" (the worse, the better) in reference to the team's recent rash of injuries. While most players are expected back for the playoffs, there simply won't be enough time to establish line chemistry. Additionally, with the return of every injured player, the lines will have to be re-shuffled, further disturbing line chemistry. Beyond that, they only have one true offensive threat from the blue line, and during the playoffs, oftentimes offense must be generated by defensemen jumping into the play.
2nd seed - Lada (Tol'yatti)
Goals for/Goals against: 135/81
Players to Watch: Jussi Markkanen, Viktor Kozlov, Aleksandr Semin
Why They'll Win: Their suffocating, defensive-first style is really, really boring, but perfect for the playoffs. One only has to look at the success of the New Jersey Devils to confirm this. They dictate the style of every match they play. Their goaltender Jussi Markkanen has an amazing 11 shutouts this year, the type of season that would earn him a contract of $5 million per year in the NHL. Their offense is based on the counterattack and is led by the veteran Viktor Kozlov, quick Dainius Zubrus and the explosive young Aleksandr Semin. And they're well-coached. On a related note, in a recent interview with Gazeta, Dinamo forward Pavel Rosa made the fatal mistake of naming Lada the team that he least wants to face in the playoffs. Not only does this give Lada a confirmed psychological edge, but also gives "bulletin board" material to all the other teams.