3 September 2018
The opening game of the season, much like the first day back at school, brings a mixture of emotions. There’s excitement – new players, new coaching staff, the problems of last season left in the past. There’s optimism – all teams start equal, and everything is there to play for.
But there’s also a sense of caution – will everything work as planned? And, continuing the ‘back to school’ analogy, there’s the possibility that there might be a few lessons to learn quickly.
A trip to Helsinki, an arena where Red Star has yet to win a KHL game, was a proposition both challenging and alluring. As a club, Kunlun has always enjoyed a strong Finnish connection; this season, with Jussi Tapola behind the bench plus defenseman Ville Lajunen and forwards Veli-Matti Savinainen and Olli Palola on the roster, that connection is as strong as ever. At the same time, there’s no doubting the size of the task against the biggest club side in Finland, and a team that regularly competes with the very best in the Western Conference.
The first competitive outing of the season could hardly have started better. The game was less than three minutes old when, taking advantage of a delayed penalty, Red Star roared into the lead. Victor Bartley, one of our many summer recruits, got the goal with a thunderous slap shot from the point. The former Predators defenseman has shown some good productivity in European hockey in the past, and wasted no time in showing what he could offer here.
Unfortunately, that was not a catalyst for Red Star to take control of the game. A Jokerit debutant, Karl Stollery, fired the teams level with a wrist shot in the fifth minute and the early advantage was lost. That wasn’t to say that Kunlun gave up the initiative. Far from it, Ryan Zapolski was the busier goalie early on and the American had to be alert to stop Taylor Beck’s tip and Palola’s first sighter of goal inside the first 10 minutes. Gradually, though, the game started to move into Jokerit’s favor. Alexander Lazushin, our new goalie, was in top form to keep the scores tied at the first intermission.
The start of the second period proved decisive. Two quick Jokerit goals took the game away from Red Star. Steve Moses capitalized on a lucky bounce of Lajunen’s skate to engineer a shooting chance for 2-1, then Viktor Loov set up Jesse Joensuu with a delightful drop pass for 3-1. Two goals in barely a minute for the Finns; Red Star got a lesson in maintaining concentration. Moses turned provider for Jokerit’s fourth, playing a diagonal feed for Sakari Manninen at the far post.
At the other end, opportunities were harder to come by. Zapolski made a double save in the 33rd minute but the three-goal lead remained until the second intermission.
Into the final stanza, and early penalty trouble seemed set to strangle hopes of a fightback. But then came Beck, engineering a short-handed odd-man rush with Patrik Lundh and slotting home the 2-4 goal. Now the chances were coming: Lajunen’s wrister from the blue line forced a blocker save from Zapolski, Brandon Yip went for the top shelf only to be denied. A Red Star power play provided the impetus, and Marc-Andre Gragnani crashed home his first for the club, a deflected wrister from the blue line to make it 3-4 and throw the game right back into the balance. Fast learners on the first day of term.
Sadly, the comeback came up short. Peter Regin calmed home nerves by adding a fifth, and with eight-and-a-half minutes to play, the two-goal cushion was comfortable enough to secure the victory for the host. A coach’s appeal for goalie interference denied Josh Nicholls a debut KHL goal, Palola hit the bar against his former club, Manninen’s breakaway goal made it 6-3. Some days, it just won’t go your way.
There’s little time for reflection as the season gets off to a whirlwind start. Wednesday sees Red Star in action again, heading to HC Sochi for game two of the campaign.