And so it ends

25 February 2020

Kunlun Red Star 1 Dinamo Riga 2

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This was a big day – and not just because of the hockey. The final game of Red Star’s regular season, relocated from Beijing to Novosibirsk due to the Covid-19 outbreak, was a last chance to get into the playoffs. But, more than that, it was a chance for our team – and the KHL – to show its solidarity with the struggle against the deadly outbreak that has gripped Wuhan.

Prior to the game, both teams paid tribute to the ongoing efforts to control the spread of the virus. The game uniforms were modified for the occasion, with #wuhanstrong patches on jerseys and #chinastrong stickers on helmets for both sets of players. And there was a good turnout of local Sibir fans to show their support alongside the travelling followers of both competing teams.

On the ice, the equation was simple enough. Monday’s early game between Amur and Neftekhimik had removed the Tigers from the race; Neftekhimik was in pole position and the Dragons had to win this one in regulation and hope that Admiral could sink the team from Nizhnekamsk in the final action of the campaign. Dinamo, meanwhile, had relatively little to play for. Its playoff hopes had been extinguished some time ago, although it was still battling to consign Dinamo Minsk to the foot of the table.

In the first period, that lack of pressure lifted the visitor. The game was fairly even, but the Latvians created the more dangerous opportunities and the stats showed a measurable in-game advantage for Dinamo. With so much at stake, Kunlun was in danger of fluffing its lines.

It all went wrong in the second period. Riga stepped up the tempo and Red Star struggled to create opportunities in front of Alexander Salak’s net. The best of them fell to Brandon Magee, who saw his effort tipped onto the bar by the Czech goalie after he got to a rebound on the slot. By then, though, the Dragons were down 2-0. First, Carter Ashton struck on the power play, finding space beyond Kunlun’s defense to get in close and beat Jeremy Smith. A couple of minutes later Lauris Darzins added to his assist on the opener to fire home a second after good work from youngster Janis Svanenbergs.

There was still hope, especially when Devante Smith-Pelly pulled a goal back in the third period. Our forward started and finished the move, bringing play into the Riga end and continuing his advance while Vic Bartley and Ryan Sproul moved the puck into the danger zone. Fifteen seconds later, the Dragons got a power play chance when Uvis Baliskis was called for tripping but the Dinamo PK did its job. As the clock ran down, Red Star set up camp in the Riga zone but found the Latvians’ defense in resolute mood. The visitor blocked nine shots in the final third, Salak came up with the save when needed and the hooter brought an end to the game and our playoff hopes.

Thus, our fourth season of KHL action comes to a premature end. There are, again, positive signs. This is, after all, the closest we’ve come to securing a playoff place since our debut campaign back in 2016/17. Curt Fraser’s team has given valuable experience to more Chinese-eligible players as we continue to build towards that 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. But, of course, right now it’s hard to shake the disappointment of getting so close to the top eight and faltering in the final weeks of the season. That long, long road trip – our last game in Beijing was back on Jan. 22 – took a physical and mental toll and saw a promising position slip away. However, the work towards the coming campaign starts now, with head coach Fraser committed to leading the team again next season and already making plans to get us back into the post season.

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Kunlun Red Star