Wolski’s return. SKA St. Petersburg 5 Kunlun Red Star 1

29 October 2018

The signing of Wojtek Wolski, back for a second spell with Red Star after his unexpected departure from Metallurg Magnitogorsk, was the big talking point of the gap between the end of our home stand last week and this opening game of the latest road trip. Adding a forward of Wolski’s proven caliber to the roster can only enhance the chances of making the playoffs; even the prospect of a daunting trip to St. Petersburg to face a team never previously beaten by us in KHL action could not dampen the optimism in the camp.

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Of course, this would always be a tough place to make an impact for any opposition forward. The nature of playing at SKA is that chances are at a premium and resilient defense is paramount. The game plan had to be one of frustrating the home team’s impressive firepower – lest we forget, SKA rattled in seven unanswered goals against Slovan over the weekend – and hoping for some clinical finishing for the chances that might arrive at the other end. It was a day for courage and hard work, the team effort and the understated contribution. There will be better opportunities to display the kind of flash and dash that illuminates highlight reels; this was all about the battle.

And, for two periods, there was no shortage of battle. Despite the lopsided final scoreline, nobody could deny that SKA was in a game here. Indeed, it wasn’t until the final eight minutes that this game got away from Red Star. True, it was backs-to-the-wall stuff at times. Barry Brust starred in a second period in which SKA fired in 15 shots on his net while allowing just two at our old friend Magnus Hellberg, waiting patiently at the other end. The opening frame saw the Red Star defense putting its bodies on the line with a stringed of blocked shots. There was a murmuring of unease among the home faithful in the 12,000-strong crowd as the Western Conference high flyer struggled to find a way to get ahead.

Those murmurings came after the shocked silence that fell on the arena just 70 seconds into the game. The cause was an unexpected goal from Tomas Mertl to put Red Star ahead. There seemed to be little danger as the Czech forward moved down the left channel and looked to sling the puck to Brandon Yip at the far post. Hellberg should have covered it easily, but inexplicably allowed it to slip between his pads and inside the far post. Right away, Kunlun had something to hold onto.

The battle to protect that lead produced the brave efforts described above. SKA managed to tie the game in the 15th minute through Alexander Barabanov – and the Olympic champion would prove to be a scourge of our team throughout the game – but it was 47 minutes before the host got in front for first time in the game. Maxim Karpov broke the deadlock, but it wasn’t until the 53rd minute that SKA made the game safe with a power play goal. Late on, Barabanov added an assist and a second goal to his personal tally, giving the final scoreline a look that somewhat flattered the home team.

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