One of the more inspiring stories of the hockey world occurred in Russia, during the first round of the Kontinental Hockey League playoffs, when Yaroslav Lokomotiv upset the two-time defending league champions Moscow Dynamo in the opening round.
Yaroslav lost its entire team in that plane crash back in September of 2011, forcing them to rebuild an historic organization from the ground up. The team had two coaching changes this season, with the veteran Dave King taking over four games from the end of the season, just as the Olympic break occurred, with the hopes of getting the team to the playoffs. Yaroslav went to Garmisch Parkenkirchen, Germany to train during the break, came back, squeezed into the playoffs as the eighth (and final seed) and then took out Dynamo in seven games in the opening round, an upset of major proportion.
The series began as a low-scoring affair but Yaroslav won the last two games 6-0 and 5-1 and now will be heavy underdogs again in the second round against another KHL powerhouse, SKA St. Petersburg, Ilya Kovalchuk's team. Yaroslav received exceptional goaltending from former St. Louis Blues' goaltender Curtis Sanford in the series (a 1.29 GAA) and that likely will need to spill over into the second round Yaroslav's run is to continue.
By KHL standards, SKA is loaded. They swept their first-round series in four games, with former Calgary Flames' player Roman Cervenka leading the way with eight points. Also playing for St. Petersburg: Norwegian Olympian Patrick Thoresen; Viktor Tikhonov, grandson of the legendary Russian coach; and Niagara Falls-born defenceman Kevin Dallman, who has starred in Russia for the past seven years after leaving the Los Angeles Kings following the 2007-08 season. Interestingly, SKA advanced with just a single point – a goal – from Kovalchuk, in the opening round. The series against Lokomotiv starts Thursday in St. Petersburg.
King was the first-ever Canadian to coach in Russia's premier league – he ran Magnitogorsk Metallurg in 2005-06, during Evgeni Malkin's last year there – and since then, there have been a number of North American coaches join the KHL, most notably this year, Mike Keenan, who is now in charge of Magnitogorsk, a team which also advanced to the second round of the Gagarin Cup playoffs. The two teams played exhibitions against each other in Germany during the Olympic, but the only way they meet in the playoffs is if they advance all the way to the finals. Yaroslav is in the Western Conference, Magnitogorsk the top seed in the East.
But there will be a non-Russian team in the Western Conference final for the first time since the KHL expanded beyond Russia's borders, after Lev Prague and Donbass Donetsk won their opening series.
"All of us in the hockey world have an attachment to this team because of what they went through," King said after he took the job, receiving a leave of absence from the Phoenix Coyotes, where he'd been working as the team's development coach. "The plane accident makes it a special organization and it is a long recovery process from that. We have a young team, a good group and a great organization, so that made it intriguing to me."
King and Brad McCrimmon, the former Yaroslavl coach who died in the plane crash, are both from Saskatchewan and were long-time friends and associates.