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European report: Playoffs!

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Everything is happening. Yegor Korshkov is back, the KHL playoffs are about to start and there’s hockey all over the place.

The KHL regular season wrapped up on Saturday with a full slate of games, most of them nothing but exercise for teams who already had clinched either a playoff spot or an early vacation.

There are two Leafs draft picks on clubs that are in the playoffs: Yegor Korshkov with Lokomotiv and Nikolai Chebykin with Dynamo Moscow. Korshkov will be in for sure, Chebykin making the KHL team playoff roster is a your guess is as good as mine scenario. In addition, person of interest, Vladimir Tkachyov will be front and centre for Ak Bars.

The matchups are as follows:

Ak Bars dodged a travel bullet by drawing next-door neighbour Salavat Yulaev in the first round. Okay, Ufa, where they are located, is an eight hour drive according to Google maps, but the alternatives, Admiral in Vladivostok or Kunlun Red Star in Beijing are ten hour flghts. Travel in the East Conference of the KHL is serious business. These teams hate each other passionately, so that makes it even better.

Lokomotiv in Yaroslavl play Dinamo Minsk, not too far away, and also the team of Ben Scrivens.

Dynamo Moscow play Torpedo, also reasonably close.

All are favourites to win the first round. The playoffs will begin on February 21.

Yegor Korshkov

As mentioned, he is back in action on the KHL team after two scoreless games on a conditioning stint in the MHL. He returned to the KHL on the last game of the regular season in front of a raucous home crowd who watched him make an extraordinarily boneheaded pass that nearly scored on his own net. His goalie bailed him out. Then, with that very large flake of rust sloughed off, he (#96 in red) did this:

He creates the turnover, skates the puck up ice, passes absurdly through the crease and he’s got another one of those secondary assists that you get for creating the entire play before the actual goal happens.

His line, the usual crew of him, Alexander Polunin and Pavel Kravskovsky were on the ice for one goal against in what turned out to be a bit of a blowout after their tying goal. Amur, not a playoff team, had fun with the under-motivated Lokomotiv side and won it 5-3. Lokomotiv gave up third place with the loss.

Nikolai Chebykin

Well, where is Nikolai Chebykin this week?

Not where I expected. He was with the KHL team some of the time. In a game on the 14th, he played just over seven minutes of uneventful hockey in a 3-2 win over a non-playoff team. For Dynamo Moscow’s next game, he did not dress. In their last regular season game on Saturday, he was also not on the roster. Dynamo are moving on to the playoffs, but whether or not Chebykin moves with them is still not known.

His MHL team played several games this week, and he was not on that roster at all. So this week’s total, better than last, is less than ten minutes of hockey. Even Josh Leivo got in more time on the ice than that.

Carl Grundström

Frölunda had three games this week, coming off their break and their CHL championship win. They are back to winning, which is good. Grundström is still stuck in non-scoring mode, which isn’t great. The SHL reports unblocked shot attempts, and his are usually good. His ice time is staying in the second or third unit range, but the points drought is lingering now for a long stretch.

In Saturday’s game, he finally broke the drought with an assist on the first Frölunda goal of the game. They failed to play effectively for the rest of the game and lost 4-2. With only eight games left to play, they are five points behind first place Växjö, so they aren’t making up that ground without a miracle.

Pierre Engvall and Jesper Lindgren

MODO had a rare three game week, and Jesper Lindgren, splitting his time between the junior callup and his regular defence partner, had a good week. He had three assists in the three games, and he is now tenth in points for defenders. His team, however, is losing a lot, and the press is baying for coach blood. If Carl Grundsrtöm found this team a struggle last year, what must it be like now?

Mora IK played two games, and Pierre Engvall remained down on the third unit. He was a non-factor in one but had a goal and an assist in the other. They also played a third game this morning. Prior to that contest he was in 12th place with 36 points, half goals, half assists.

Persons of Interest

Elias Pettersson: Rumours are swirling that this highly ranked draft-eligible player will move up to the SHL, possibly this season. There are denials from all parties, but there always are. The real question is will he make the jump now to a team on a playoff run, or will he play out the season on his Allsvenskan club who are going to try very hard for promotion?

Miro Heiskanen: Another draft-eligible player, Heiskanen plays defence for HIFK, in the Finnish Liiga. They were in the final round of the playoffs last year, but have just not quite put it together this year. The team signed American defender Joe Finley, and they like him, since they re-signed him in the middle of a game last week!

To understand Heiskanen, it helps to understand Finley since they play together some of the time. Finley is 6’ 8” tall and nearly 250 lb. He was a high NHL draft pick, but never broke out of the AHL. He also never scores. He is 100% a defensive defender, and he is effective, largely because his reach is Zdeno Chara-esque. He is not very quick, but he’s not a plodder either, and he definitely does nothing unexpected.

However, no one is touching any young rookie when that man is on the ice. He plays a reasonably quiet game, but when he hits someone, they feel it.

In the games I watched where Heiskanen played with Finley, he had the freedom to dart around, grab the puck, move it out, and he is obviously green, very, very green, but he has the sought after skills for defenders these days. He looks very at home on the power play too.

HIFK moved him to play with Matt Generous, another tallish American cut from the same cloth as Finley. They were okay, but not nearly as effective. He also played one game with Ryan O’Connor, a faster, smaller, goal-scorer and Liiga veteran the team just acquired. But I liked him with Finley. HIFK are on the edge of a playoff spot, so they were trying desperately to win. Development was not their concern.

It’s hard getting a feel for a defender in only a few games. Heiskanen is not a big points man this season, he has five goals and five assists, with three of those ten points coming on the power play. He shoots the puck a decent amount, although not in O’Connor’s range, and he has a five-on-five Corsi For percentage of 52.8 which is the highest on his team for regular defenders. HIFK don’t seem to be skewing anyone’s zone starts particularly, so his usage is largely the same as everyone else’s.

Over all, for a teenager playing defence in a men’s league and not relying on size to do it, he’s doing fantastically well. He’s a merely average sized player who looks miniature on the ice next to Finley.

Vladimir Tkachyov: coming off a sweep in the Euro Hockey Tour where in the final game he just could not score a goal, his woes continued, as did his method of dealing with it. He took one game off, came back for Ak Bars final two and couldn’t put it in the net, so he just passed it off perfectly to his linemates and had three assists in his first game and no points in the final, not-meaningful, game.

He moves on to the playoffs now, with a real chance to help his team into the East final.