Right in the beginning of this interview with Mikhail Milyokhin it became obvious why SKA-1946 St. Petersburg were so successful this year. They played their last game several weeks ago but Kharlamov Cup runner-up recalls all of it in great detail. Without any difficulty he says what swung the games one way or another and leaves no doubt that success depends on teamwork.
- This season your team came up just empty in the quest for Kharlamov Cup. What did SKA-1946 lack in the final series?
- Sometimes we lacked skill and sometimes we lacked experience of playing at high level. For most guys on our team, these Kharlamov Cup Finals games were the first of such caliber.
- What was the key game of the final series?
- It’s difficult to single out one game but if you look at the final series as a whole, Loko were the favorites from the beginning. Yaroslavl had depth that enabled them to rotate their players, which is exactly what they did, changing their roster every game. As for us, we managed to counter that with right tactics, position our players right, great goaltending and team play on the whole, which allowed us to win several final series games and thus give confidence to our players. But misfortunes happen in sports. That’s what we came across in Game 6 when our guys didn’t play the way we had planned. After a few mistakes, they got caught up in emotions, got a few unnecessary penalties and it showed in final result. Despite everything, the coaching staff and our players fought till the end. We expected the series to go to Game 7, which we planned to win.
- SKA-1946 won nine games out of ten on their way to the finals. How did it affect the team?
- It may look like we didn’t have any trouble getting to the finals and never faced a tough opponent. But believe me – coaching staff and players achieved that result through very hard work. I’ve said it many times – a lot depends on the first couple of games in a series. And that’s exactly when we did well. We played against Krylia Sovetov in the opening round. In that series our opponents were objectively weaker than us. Although the games were a bit nervous, we were still good enough to win the series.
It’s was a huge leg-up that we topped Spartak in regular season standings and had the home ice advantage in the series. If you remember first games against the red-and-white and Belye Medvedi – they were very tight and luck could have swung one away as much as the other. We prepared our players that those games were going to be decisive. I’m very grateful to them for understanding that. We grabbed the momentum and swung it our way in Game 1 against Spartak late in the second period. They thought there was going to be a stoppage of play and ceased playing for a moment, while Volodya Vasiliev played till the end in that episode. The red-and-white tried to get back even but we managed to catch them on a counter-attack and won the game 2-0.
Game 1 against Chelyabinsk went to the shootout. Had we lost it, our opponents would have gotten a psychological advantage and take away home ice advantage from us. In the semifinal series Belye Medvedi got great reinforcements from Traktor, who got eliminated from Gagarin Cup Playoffs. Marsel Sholokhov and Vitaly Kravtsov joined the team. Their arrival inspired their team but I thought that they relied on them too much. Fortunately, we managed to do better than them – we scored first in Game 2, won it and went on the road with a 2-0 lead. We lost Game 3 but we got off to a good start in very important Game 4. We got in the lead, which gave us an advantage, which we held on to.
- Konstantin Volkov played three games out of four in the semifinal series, while Nikita Lysenkov had more ice-time in the finals. What was the reason for that?
- We tried different options in the playoffs. Nikita Lysenkov played in the series against Krylia Sovetov and then Konstantin Volkov looked better at practices. And he proved his worth in the series against Spartak and Belye Medvedi. Although, the pressure that Konstantin had to deal with in the series had to take its toll and by the end of the series against Chelyabinsk it was obvious he was tired. When we looked at how Nikita Lysenkov was getting ready for the games, how he worked at practices, we decided to give the nod to him. Besides, Nikita is a Chelyabinsk junior hockey school alumni. And did he play well! His confidence helped our team to win an important game. Because of his play our coaching staff had two strong goaltenders in this playoff run. We planned that our goaltenders would equally divide the final series but after Nikita Lysenkov won two games, we decided to let him finish the series. You know that he was named the top goaltender of the regular season, so, hopefully, he’s going to continue to improve and will become a good netminder one day.
- How do you decide which goaltender to go with?
- We don’t have a goaltending coach on our coaching staff. Of course, we relied heavily on Maxim Sokolov’s opinion because he has a great goaltending experience, but Yuri Dobryshkin also voiced his opinions. I listened to everyone, shared my thoughts and fears – and we made the decision together. Actually, our coaching staff is different in that regard because I don’t make any decisions on my own – neither regarding goaltenders, nor who is going to be dressed for the game, nor when it comes to tactics. We make our decisions collectively. Perhaps, that was a part of our team’s success this season.
- Let’s get back to the regular season, in which SKA-1946 gained an average of 2.5 points per game and allowed the least amount of goals. Would you call your team’s defense the best in Junior Hockey League?
- I would say that it’s a fact. How did we get to that? Let’s look at the final series against Loko Yaroslavl. Building teamplay, from offensive end to defensive end is all about defense. With this system, skilled Yaroslavl players always had to deal with our defense and were always under our control – that’s exactly why they were unable to score as much as they did earlier in the playoffs. We tried to hone this system throughout the season and focused on playing defense, because the playoffs are won by…
- Defense and goaltending.
- Exactly. Once again, I have to point out that we got really lucky with our goaltenders. Maxim Sokolov worked with them individually and in group. So he should be given a lot of credit for their success.
- Would you name the players who achieved the most progress on your team comparing to the previous season?
- We had a lot of guys on this year’s team that we couldn’t have done without. Obviously, it’s our captain and top-scorer in the playoffs Vladislav Kurbatov. Kirill Petkov also made noticeable progress. As for defensemen, Timur Sulteyev played at a decent level, while Evgeny Kalabushkin, Oleg Kholodenin and Kirill Basisty played well. I want to give special credit to our goaltenders Konstantin Volkov and Nikita Lysenkov. I believe that everyone on our team made progress this season, which we, as their coaching staff, loved to see.
- Midway through the season you head-coached Team West in JHL Challenge Cup. What do you remember the most from that All-Star Week?
- It’s great that the league organizes such events. After all, we play for the fans and they love exhibition games like that! These events also help the players to get to know each other a little better because unlike in regular JHL games, they play for the same team. Dmitry Krasotkin and I invited players for the game who managed to become a real team. It’s always difficult to bring together a group of players from around the league but the boys quickly understood what was demanded of them and played some great hockey!
- This past season SKA-1946 finished second in regular season standings are made it to Kharlamov Cup Finals. A year earlier your team had finished first in the Western Conference. In your opinion, which team was better?
- My rookie season as the head-coach in JHL wasn’t easy. I had never coached a team of such caliber before. Sometimes I had to rely on my assistants. We worked well and achieved our goal – we won the regular season, which was a great present to the city of St. Petersburg, because our team had never achieved such a result. It was a very memorable moment but I would still point out this season because working with these guys for the second consecutive year, we were all able to make a huge step forward in organizing the way we play. We’ve built a core of the team – whoever had a hard time adjusting moved to SKA-Varyagi and SKA-Serebrynye Lvy. So for me, as a coach, this second season was more productive – because we made it to the finals but also because the players made a huge step forward comparing to the previous year.
- Have you noticed any changes in the JHL during your tenure?
- When I was making my first steps in hockey, we didn’t have an opportunity to play so many games, which is a great way to develop. 15 JHL alumni became Olympic champions – that means a lot! But I would like to point out one paradox – some teams bring young players to their teams just for the sake of it, focusing on developing those players rather than pursuing the cup. In the end, those guys get experience and mature, while their head-coach gets fired after the season. I believe that teams should be well-balanced in that regard – they should have a few older players, a few younger guys and some rookies because you have to develop them along with more experienced players. Teams that have a well-built vertical have a decent amount of young players. For instance, in Yaroslavl they have five to six players competing for one spot on their JHL team. We also have a few guys who compete for every spot on SKA-1946 but that’s not what it’s like with some other teams. Teams that don’t have a built KHL-VHL-JHL vertical can only bring new players from their junior hockey school. But those schools also aren’t as good as the one we have in St. Petersburg or Yaroslavl. This is why I believe in importance of balance. We shouldn’t put 2000 and 2001 year borns in the line-up just so they could get more experience, while a 1997 year born player can’t be dressed because of the age limit. Top young players will make the team regardless of anything but they will continue their development in healthy competition.
- You spoke in great detail about this past season. Please, share your thoughts on the next one.
- After all of the teams within our club system have finished their seasons, club management has to decide on the coaching staff of our team for next year. In any case, I’m very grateful to the club and the city for these two amazing years. I’m certain that the new season is going to be exciting for both fans and players.