Two and a half years ago, a plane carrying the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl KHL team crashed on take off, killing all but one person on board. The team did not compete that season and were eliminated in Round 1 last season. This year they finished eighth in their conference - and now they're in the West final after knocking out Dynamo Moscow and SKA St. Petersburg.
Two and a half years ago tragedy struck the hockey world when the plane of Kontinental League team Lokomotiv Yaroslavl crashed while taking off. Of the 45 people on board, 44 died including former NHLers Pavol Demitra and Ruslan Salei. The only survivor was Alexander Sizov, a flight engineer.
The crash happened Sept. 7, on what was supposed to be the opening day of the 2011-12 KHL season. The league delayed its start until Sept. 12 and Lokomotiv did not participate that season.
They returned for the 2012-13 season with players such as Viktor Kozlov, Niklas Hagman and Staffan Kronwall and Florida’s Dmitry Kulikov played there during the NHL lockout. Lokomotiv finished fourth in the Western Conference, but were bounced in the first round by Severstal Cherepovets in six games.
Just last month, Dave King, who has worked on NHL benches in Calgary, Montreal, Columbus and Phoenix in the past, was named head coach of Lokomotiv. Led by Sergei Plotnikov’s 35 points in 53 games and stellar goaltending from Curtis Sanford, Lokomotiv edged out Atlant for the final playoff position in the West.
Not a lot was expected from Lokomotiv as they matched up against two-time defending champion Dynamo Moscow in the first round. Lokomotiv even lost the first two games before winning their two at home. Heading into Game 7 of that series, the home team had won each game. Lokomotiv stomped Dynamo 5-1 in the deciding match and outscored them 11-1 over the final two games. That upset was incredible enough, but it was only the beginning.
Next up was another heavy hitter: the big-spending behemoth SKA St. Petersburg, who had Ilya Kovalchuk on their roster. Lokomotiv lost the first game of that series, too and were behind 2-1 after three games. But they evened it up at home and won Game 5 on the road.
Today, they knocked out SKA in Game 6 with a 2-0 win to move on to the Western Conference final. Kovalchuk had two goals and one assist in the series.
It’s an incredible hockey story every fan can get behind.
Next, Lokomotiv will play the winner of Lev Prague and Donbass Donestk, the Ukrainian team that also has a story worth rooting for.
And if Lokomotiv gets past the West final, they could meet the East’s top seed in the Gagarin Cup final: Metallurg Magnitogorsk, which is coached by Mike Keenan.
There are many interesting angles in this year’s KHL playoffs, but no story is as inspiring as the one that is developing around Lokomotiv.
Editor's Note: After this story was published, Lev Prague won its series and will face Lokomotiv in the West final.