20 September 2018
After a home loss and a failure to score for the first time this season, it might seem strange to come away from Wednesday’s game with a sense of Red Star’s glass being half full. However, despite the final scoreline, the visit of last season’s runner-up CSKA offered more evidence that the team is moving in the right direction.
First things first: this is an opponent of a different order from most in the KHL. Quite apart from last season’s run to the Gagarin Cup final – CSKA’s second in three seasons – there’s also the small matter of a clutch of Olympic champions lining up in red and blue. Moreover, CSKA enjoys impressive continuity on the playing side: the bulk of last year’s team is still together, so that chemistry and understanding between players is largely second nature. For a club like ours, with a roster still in transition, it’s never going to be easy to stand in the path of such a well-oiled machine.
However, our own team does not lack for discipline and organization. Despite the challenges faced in this game, Red Star never allowed CSKA to run away with it. From start to finish, the Army Men had to battle for every puck. The defense was well-drilled and committed, CSKA was kept at arm’s length for long periods and the stats confirm that this was a surprisingly even match-up. At times it was gritty rather than pretty: on this occasion, defense had to start from the front and our efforts to clog up center ice were crucial to thwarting the visitor’s offense.
But it was effective – at least up to a point. Over the first two periods, CSKA managed just 11 shots on goal (against 10 for Red Star). The Army Men failed to set up camp in Red Star territory, managing three or four minutes per period on the attack at best. Early in the game, there was even some offensive pressure from the home team, with half chances for Brandon Yip and Blake Parlett. The defensive effort and the strategic plan could hardly be faulted.
The devil, though, was in the detail. CSKA delivered in the big moments; Red Star was found wanting in front of goal. There were opportunities for our guys: Greg Squires was a constant, lively presence up front, аmong the blue liners, Marc-Andre Gragnani and Ville Lajunen provided the fulcrum of much of Red Star’s attacking play.
But the scoring only came at the other end, where the clinical finishing of CSKA’s stars made the difference. Kirill Kaprizov, scorer of the gold-medal goal in PyeongChang, put the visitor in front here in the seventh minute. Sergei Tolchinsky, back in Russia after several seasons on the fringes of the NHL, added a second. Nikita Nesterov, another Olympic champion, scored a third on the power play midway through the game. Those extra touches of class in front of the net made the difference – but Red Star was by no means outclassed despite the defeat.