Courage and resilience … and a bitter ending. Avangard Omsk 4 Kunlun Red Star 2

23 September 2018

Few neutral observers would have given Red Star much of a chance before this game. The form-book pointed to a routine home victory, even if there were some signs of promise to be taken from recent games.

It wasn’t just matters on the ice that lined up against us. What should have been a relatively short road trip to Siberia also turned into a monster journey. Problems with Arena Omsk meant that Avangard had to play on the outskirts of Moscow. Arena Balashikha has not hosted regular KHL action since the demise of MVD in 2010; for Red Star it was a first visit to the venue.

Unfamiliar surroundings, but nothing unfamiliar about the opposition. Chernyshev Division rival Avangard is well-known as a tough opponent and this season’s form proved that point. Under new head coach Bob Hartley, the Hawks have suffered just one loss and boasts the KHL’s most miserly defense. Yet, for all the daunting stats, Red Star belied its position near the foot of the Eastern Conference with a performance that pushed one of the title contenders all the way.

It’s no exaggeration to say the result was in doubt right up until the 59th minute. Only then did Avangard make the game safe when Kirill Semyonov scored into an empty net. True, the host had led 3-1 for much of the third period, but the better chances came to us. Tomas Mertl, who opened his account early in the game, was agonizingly close to a second but stumbled at the crucial moment and could not steer his shot on target when under pressure from an Avangard defenseman. Had the Czech’s effort squeezed in, the closing stages could have been very different. As it was, an increasingly anxious Avangard was dragged deeper into battle when Jussi Tapola withdrew Alexander Lazushin and got his reward in 6-on-5 play when Taylor Beck fired home from wide on the left. With almost two minutes to go, we were back in a one-goal game and had the momentum swinging our way.
It wasn’t to be: Semyonov’s second of the game finally killed it, but there was still much encouragement to be found over the course of the 60 minutes. Despite going behind early on to a thunderbolt from Evgeny Medvedev, Red Star refused to buckle. The first period was hard work, but our defense battled every inch of the way to keep the team in the game and that effort was rewarded late in the frame when Mertl applied a sweet touch to a Rok Ticar shot and tied the game going into the first intermission.

The middle stanza was an exercise in frustration. Solid, disciplined play limited Avangard’s opportunities and our own offense was flexing a little muscle of its own only for a game-breaker of a goal on the stroke of the second break. Semyonov scored it, putting Avangard back in front and laying the foundations for the final score. Sergei Shirokov’s deft redirect early in the third extended the home advantage, but by no means killed off Red Star’s resistance. On another night, this game could easily have gone to overtime; instead it ended as a tough defeat to take.

Next up Red Star travels to Neftekhimik for Monday’s game. Andrei Nazarov’s team has been in unpredictable form this season, meaning there’s every chance Kunlun can turn its improved performances into another positive result.

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