1 November 2019
Hallowe’en is not the most Chinese of festivals; the local equivalent, Teng Chieh, comes at a different time of year and is more about encouraging the departed on their journey to the next world rather than dodging their continued presence in this one. However, Red Star is a team with a strong North American accent and, as such, it was perhaps not surprising that tonight’s game lifted a long-standing ‘curse’.
In six previous meetings with Torpedo, Red Star had never once won. Our first four encounters all ended in two-goal losses but there were signs of progress last season when we took the Nizhny Novgorod team to overtime and a shoot-out without quite getting it over the line. Today, though, came the breakthrough with a battling victory in an arena where visitors rarely leave with much to cheer.
Victory at Torpedo also set a new club record of five consecutive wins. That’s an unprecedented level of consistency in our history in the KHL and it highlights the way this team has grown together after a shaky start to the season. Not only is it a record-breaking streak, it was forged in adversity with four of the five games coming on the road. Character, determination, resilience, finding ways to win … all the key attributes of a successful team, repeated night after night on a journey that stretches from Beijing to the Baltic. Fittingly, the record-breaking success also lifted the Dragons into a playoff spot. Although it’s still early to talk about long-term goals, it’s an encouraging sign to have an upwardly mobile team breaking the top eight with a third of the season gone.
Thursday’s game saw a welcome return to action for fit-again forward Wojtek Wolski. The Canadian began his KHL career at Torpedo and was eager to return here if his injury would allow. Happily, he came through almost 20 minutes on the ice with no ill effects, boosting our forward line while captain Brandon Yip recovers from the knock suffered in Sunday’s game at Vityaz. There could be another new addition on the team in the next game if new signing Devante Smith-Pelly gets the nod following his weekend arrival from North America.
The Stanley Cup winner had a watching brief in Nizhny Novgorod, and he saw his new team make its now-traditional fast start. A big hit from Garet Hunt – our enforcer doing what he’s here to do – sparked a fight early on and that got the adrenaline pumping. A bench minor on Torpedo didn’t do any harm either and Adam Cracknell’s vision picked out Andrew Miller at the back door for a power play goal and a fifth-minute lead.
Torpedo, though, is always a dangerous opponent and never more so than when it trails in a game. Chances came at the other end, with Chay Genoway missing the target when it seemed easier to score and Jordan Schroeder slicing a backhand wide of an open net. Jeremy Smith continued one of the other themes of the current winning streak with another fine goal-tending display. He would finish with 41 saves, 19 of them in a frantic second period, and as a team we blocked 11 shots. Equally important, after that early major penalty for Hunt’s fight, Kunlun took just two more minor penalties. Statistically, we may still be the most penalized team in the league but in recent games our guys have distilled the best of their will-to-win, kept it within the rules and reaped the rewards of keeping a full complement on the ice.
This time, even Torpedo’s goal came on a Red Star power play. Stanislav Bocharov claimed it after a scruffy scramble in front of Smith late in the middle frame. It was a moment to forget and the third period offered some more rewarding memories. More big saves from Smith kept the scores level until Danil Veryayev took a minor penalty. Shrewd coaching saw Fraser call a time-out to settle the team and focus on converting the chance that had presented itself, and the guys did the rest. It wasn’t the prettiest of goals: Olli Palola emerged from behind the net like a rugby forward ploughing over the remains of a scrum but managed to get the puck to Cory Kane on the slot for the decisive finish.