Ak Bars Kazan 3 Kunlun Red Star 1
It took two moments of world-class quality for KHL leader Ak Bars to edge past the Dragons in Kazan. Even though the full expanse of the Eastern Conference separates the two teams, there was little to choose between them in this encounter. Red Star produced a brave, committed performance, taking the game to its illustrious host and more than holding its own. However, a fantastic piece of skill late in the first period tipped the scales against us and another moment of class at the end of the second left us with just too much to do to save the game.
The action began as most neutrals would have expected, with Ak Bars setting the early pace. But Jeremy Smith kept the home team at bay in the early stages and it wasn’t long before our offense started to show its stuff. Indeed, the best chance of the first 10 minutes came our way, with Slava Leshchenko forcing a smart stop from Timur Bilyalov before the home goalie was relieved to see Alexei Toropchenko put the rebound wide of the target. Shortly after that, we won the first power play of the afternoon but, despite a couple of good looks for Spencer Foo there was no goal.
Sadly, after absorbing that early pressure and then going toe-to-toe with our high-flying host, the Dragons were hit by a sucker punch just before the first intermission. There was little sign of danger when Artyom Galimov burst down the right-hand channel, but the young forward produced some exceptional skill to slip the puck between his own legs and deceive Jake Chelios. And that was just the beginning: bearing down on Smith’s net, he repeated the trick with another play from behind his own back to finish off in at the back door. It’s always tough to take giving up a goal, but even the most one-eyed Red Star fan would have to concede that Galimov’s effort was something special.
The second period followed a similar pattern, with Red Star producing plenty of good things against the league leader but allowing another goal in the last minute of play. And, once again, the Ak Bars goal came with a touch of class. Dmitry Voronkov showed some neat skills on the red line to wrongfoot our defense and release Daniil Zhuravlyov; the subsequent shot came after some more neat stick-handling to open up the narrowest of shooting lanes past Vojtech Mozik.
Before that we were so close to tying this game, with Ethan Werek hitting the post from close range as a prelude to a middle frame where we had the better of the play without being able to solve Bilyalov.
The goal we deserved arrived midway through the third. Toropchenko redirected Gleb Shashkov’s point shot into Bilyalov’s pads, then reacted first to stuff the puck inside the near post. If at first you don’t succeed, try again. A good motto for the game as a whole, and that goal in particular. Home boss Dmitry Kvartalnov spent some time arguing with the referee, perhaps claiming goalie interference, but stopped short of challenging the play.
With 10 minutes left, it was absolutely ‘game on’. Red Star’s hopes were lifted further with a power play a minute after Alexei’s goal, but the home PK did its job. Back at equal strength, we had another good chance when Ryan Sproul dispossessed Ilya Safonov and set up Anton Lazarev for a shot that was saved by the impressive Bilyalov. The home goalie was having a busy afternoon – Kunlun outshot the league leader 38-28 over the course of the game – but got a reprieve when Mozik was called for tripping. On the power play, Ak Bars effectively settled the outcome when our old friend Trevor Murphy stepped up from the blue line to fire home a third goal. With four minutes to play, Murph’s intervention denied us the chance of a Hollywood ending, but this was a brave performance against the league leader and it belied the big gap between the teams in the championship standings.