Ever since the Kontinental Hockey League began in 2008, the overall champions and winners of the Gagarin Cup have been determined by an end-of-season play-off tournament. In the current format, eight teams from each of the Eastern Conference and Western Conference advance to the competition; 14 matches later and the two teams left standing go head-to-head to determine the Gagarin Cup victors.
The play-off system has its advocates and its detractors – and not just in ice hockey or the KHL. On the one hand, the nature of the knockout tournaments adds plenty of excitement and drama at the end of the campaign, while it also helps to keep the regular season interesting. For instance, teams between sixth and 10th place in their Conference Standings would have little to play for in the final weeks if there were no play-offs, but finishing in the top eight is a real motivation which brings with it a tangible reward.
On the other hand, though, there are question marks over the sporting integrity of such a setup. How can it be, critics will argue, that a team could in theory finish more than 50 points behind the side who finishes top of the Conference yet ultimately usurp them in a one-off match in which luck (injuries, refereeing decisions) and other random events play a larger part in determining the outcome? The winners of the regular season may receive the Continental Cup for their efforts, but that is often scant consolation if they miss out on the main prize after a hard-fought year.
That was the fate which befell SKA Saint Petersburg – arguably the best team not to win the Gagarin Cup – in 2017/18. The Soldiers were utterly dominant across 56 matches in the Western Conference, amassing a record 138 points thanks to their 40 wins, seven overtime triumphs, 227 goals scored, 97 goals against and +130 goal difference. They suffered just five losses and four overtime losses, and finished 14 points clear of an excellent CSKA Moscow in second spot and 35 ahead of third-placed Jokerit. By way of comparison, table-topping Ak Bars Kazan collected a relatively paltry 100 points over in the Eastern Conference.
In terms of individuals, Ilya Kovalchuk (63 points) and Nikita Gusev (62 points) were, by a sizeable margin, the season’s leading scorers. CSKA Moscow’s Lars Johansson may have been the best-ranked goaltender statistically, but SKA’s Mikko Koskinen was second with a goals against average of 1.57.
And yet despite their phenomenal performance in the regular season, SKA Saint-Petersburg ultimately came up short in the Gagarin Cup. They began with a 4-0 thumping of Severstal, the team who had finished eighth in the Western Conference, in the quarter-finals, before thrashing Lokomotiv Yaroslavl – the fourth-place finishers – in the last four. That sent them through to the Conference Finals, but CSKA Moscow proved too strong on the day, emerging as 4-2 victors to advance to the Gagarin Cup Finals which they ultimately lost 4-1 to Ak Bars Kazan.
SKA did not end the season empty-handed thanks to their Continental Cup success, but their failure to win the Gagarin Cup was a major disappointment. Currently six points behind CSKA Moscow in the table, the Saint-Petersburg-based club will hope to do the opposite this season: not finish top of the standings but instead win the end-of-season play-offs.