29 January 2019
If ever there was an overdue victory, this was it. With Red Star’s playoff hopes beginning to fray, taking maximum points from today’s encounter was vital as the regular season enters its decisive phase. Moreover, in seven previous meetings with Avangard, Kunlun had never yet won nor even forced overtime. Today, all that changed. Two goals from Veli-Matti Savinainen and three assists from Drew Shore caught the eye, but this performance was – from top to bottom – the kind of team display needed to get us into the top eight.
“That is how I expect our team to play,” said head coach Curt Fraser, celebrating his first victory in the KHL. “It sure feels a whole lot better coming out with a win like that. But it was a case of every man digging in tonight. I could count on every player being at the top of his game. Alex [Lazushin] was excellent in goal again.”
The feel-good factor started in the seventh minute when Red Star converted the first power play of the game (of two games, actually). Savinainen was the scorer, finishing off a well-worked combination by tapping Shore’s pass into an empty net. That combination would return shortly, but before that Brandon Yip doubled the home lead with his 17th goal of the season. This was another slick finish, collecting a Shore feed to the net and holding off the attentions of experienced Russian international Evgeny Medvedev to execute a dangle round Ivan Nalimov.
A two-goal lead at the first intermission soon became three. The home PK neutralized an early opportunity for Omsk – those second-period jitters may, at last, be turning into an unhappy memory – then the PP revved up for the second time in the game. The combination was the same as the first goal – Martin St. Pierre, Shore, and Savinainen. This time it was St. Pierre whose pass found the Finn on the doorstep and Savinainen gleefully gobbled up his second of the game.
Belatedly, Avangard raised the tempo. Another penalty came and went, with Red Star’s PK standing firm. A Sergei Shumakov goal early in the third started some nerves jangling but Zach Yuen, always a home crowd favorite, made it 4-1 with his first goal of the season. Yuen got on the end of a Luke Lockhart rush and showed great composure to beat Nalimov in only his second game back among the forwards after an extended stint on the blue line this season. As well as lifting the pressure that was building on his team, the goal was also just reward for a player who unfailing gives his best in whatever role he is asked to fulfil for the team.
On a day when our special teams performed so well at both ends of the ice, it was of course frustrating to allow a power play goal for David Desharnais midway through the third period. After going 2 for 2 on the PP, it would have been a huge boost to match that with 0 for 4 on the PK. Sadly, it wasn’t to be, but Avangard’s late push could not change the outcome and Olli Palola had the final say with an empty net goal to wrap up a fine victory. Palola joins Yip on 17 goals, sharing the lead on our sharp-shooting chart for the season; Yip’s extra assists give him a 30-22 advantage in total points.
The result snaps a six-game losing streak that had pushed the team to the brink of elimination from the race for a playoff place. Red Star moves to 46 points, seven behind eighth-placed Traktor with eight games to play. Three of those are on the road – Thursday’s trip to Amur and next week’s visits to Sibir and Admiral – before the season finishes with five home games that will determine our fate.