Jokerit Helsinki 4 Kunlun Red Star 5 OT
As Thursday’s action got underway in Helsinki, the clocks back home in Beijing had just ticked into the first day of the Year of the Ox. After so many difficulties in the outgoing year, this was a time to look forward to a brighter future, on and off the ice. And, after a couple of hours of the incoming year, the Dragons were celebrating a first ever victory on the road at Jokerit after a hugely impressive performance against the playoff chasing Finns.
In the build-up to Thursday’s game, the club was boosted by two pieces of excellent news. First, we got a positive update on the injury to Noora Raty, one of the stars of our title-winning women’s team, KRS Vanke Rays. Noora suffered a lower body injury in last week’s exhibition game against Team Russia and it was feared she might need surgery. Happily, the medical advice is that the problem should recover thanks to rehab – and there’s even an outside chance that Raty could return before the end of the season. The netminder, regarded as possibly the best in the women’s game, travelled to her native Finland with the men’s team and is looking forward to the chance to catch up with family and friends during her recovery time.
Next, our on-loan forward Alexei Toropchenko scored for Russia’s ‘B’ team in its international game against Belarus. That’s Alexei’s first goal in Team Russia colors, having previously played for various age-group teams without finding the net. It’s also the first time a KRS player has scored an international goal for Russia – another small milestone for our club.
So, as we move into the Chinese Year of the Ox, are our club’s fortunes starting to improve? There were certainly promising signs in the Dragons’ game at Jokerit. Traditionally, the Finns are a tough opponent for us: in our previous nine meetings we’ve managed just one victory. However, last week’s 1-2 loss in Mytishchi was a close encounter that could have gone either way and, for the second time in successive games, we took a first period lead in Thursday’s rematch.
Hunter Shinkaruk was the goalscorer, racing onto Andrej Sustr’s pass and coming out on top in a rendezvous with Janis Kalnins in the home net. And there could be few complaints about Kunlun’s lead in an impressive first period. Indeed, only the width of the post denied Tyler Wong a goal late in that opening frame.
However, if our luck is changing, this is still a gradual process. Witness the Jokerit equalizer in the second period. Luke Lockhart, captain reliable throughout this season, was deceived by a wicked bounce and lost possession on the blue line. Markus Hannakainen showed no mercy, streaking down the ice to beat Dmitry Shikin in a one-on-one duel and make it 1-1. Things didn’t get any easier. On the penalty kill, Shikin’s desperation to stop Henrik Haapala led to a second KRS penalty and an awkward spell of 3-on-5 hockey to defend for almost a full two minutes. The pressure was intense, the defense heroic – and the Dragons believed they had successfully held on. A Niklas Jensen shot got past Shikin and bounced back into play – the Danish forward wheeled away in celebration before abruptly returning to Earth as the action continued around him. However, a video review – by which time Red Star was playing at full strength again – confirmed that the puck did hit the net and Jokerit had the lead. And the home team, urgently in need of points to secure a playoff place, capitalized on that momentum and extended its lead with a short-handed goal from John Norman five minutes before the second intermission.
Then came the fightback. Another power play produced an altogether more satisfactory outcome when Shinkaruk connected with Ryan Sproul and our defenseman thumped in an unstoppable shot from the deep slot. Next came Lockhart, refusing to be subdued by his earlier misfortune and bringing us level when he stuffed home the puck from close range after Sproul’s attempted shot turned into a perfect feed to the back door.
Early in the third, Luke was involved again, battling his way into the Jokerit zone and getting past Viktor Loov to set up Wong for the go-ahead goal. That lead didn’t last: Brian O’Neill, who scored the game winner on us last week, tied things up with a fine effort as he spun his way past Lev Starikov top open a path to the net. That took the game to overtime – the first time that has happened in a game between the teams.
Overtime has not been kind to the Dragons this season: our only win in the extras was a shoot-out success at Avangard on Dec. 30. This time, though, it went perfectly: composed under pressure, Red Star waited for the big moment and sprang into action. Ivan Nikolishin got goal side of Sami Lepisto, accelerated to the net and beat Kalnins for the winning goal.
Victory snaps a nine-game losing streak, moves us level on points with Neftekhimik at the foot of the Eastern Conference and, most importantly, gets the Chinese New Year off to a flying start.