It’s the final week of the regular season and the Dragons are finishing off the 2020/21 campaign on home ice. And there is still plenty to play for, even if our playoff prospects ended some weeks ago. The battle for the minor placings might not, on the face of it, seem all that important. However, there’s plenty of pride riding on the fact that a strong finish to the season could see Red Star finish in the top 20. Alexei Kovalev’s team is already assured of ending the campaign with more points than Dinamo Riga and could overtake Neftekhimik and Sochi this week. Considering the unique difficulties our club faced in finding a team to contest this season, not to mention a place to play our games, overcoming three opponents in the final standings would be no small achievement.
However, it won’t be easy. All three of our remaining games are against teams with hopes of making an impact in post season. Two of our guests are big shots in the Western Conference, while Chernyshev Division rival Barys is looking for a strong finish to secure the best possible draw in the Eastern playoffs.
SKA (Feb. 22)
Last time out: The Dragons made history on our most recent visit to St. Petersburg, picking up our first ever victory with a 2-1 verdict. Tyler Wong and Ryan Sproul were the scorers, turning the game upside down with a quickfire double late in the second period.
Familiar faces: Swedish goalie Magnus Hellberg began his KHL career with Red Star. Now he is one of the seven imports at SKA battling for five available slots on each gameday roster. His opposite number, Dmitry Shikin, began his career with SKA, as did Dragons’ forward Sergei Monakhov.
Background: This could be another little piece of Kunlun history. Victory on Monday would bring our first ever home win against SKA and complete a ‘double’ against the Army Men this season. Valery Bragin’s team looks set to claim second place in the West but this has not been a vintage campaign in Petersburg. In previous years, the team has been imperious in its march through the regular season but this time the usual consistency has been lacking. However, there is still some formidable quality on the roster, from the rising talents of Vasily Podkolzin, Kirill Marchenko and Danila Galenyuk to the established qualities of Anton Burdasov, Andrei Kuzmenko or Vladimir Tkachyov. Then there’s Malte Stromwall, the former Sochi forward on a hot streak at the moment with four goals in his last five appearances.
Barys (Feb. 24)
Last time out: Early in the season, we suffered two one-goal losses in Nur-Sultan. More recently in Mytishchi, Red Star shared the points when Barys visited on Dec. 19. Hunter Shinkaruk’s 10th goal of the season put us in front but the game turned on a third-period equalizer and the Kazakhs got the overtime verdict.
Familiar faces: Defenseman Jesse Blacker missed our previous meeting due to injury, but the former Dragon is set to represent his new club and country in this game. Linus Videll, who played on the same roster as Sean Collins in our debut season, is another current Barys player.
Background: This game is all about positioning. For Barys, a strong finish to the season could be the difference between finishing fifth and finishing eighth. A high finish sets up a competitive playoff series, but coming bottom of the pile means a daunting task against Ak Bars in the first round of the post season. So, there’s no shortage of motivation for Yury Mikhailis and his team. However, there might be a plan to avoid a playoff pairing with Metallurg – twice in the space of a week, Barys travelled to Magnitogorsk and lost. That’s somewhat typical of the Kazakhs’ season, with results coming in fits and starts. The team suffered extensive disruption due to the COVID restrictions imposed in Kazakhstan, and that undoubtedly hampered progress early in the campaign. Since then, there have been some bright spots – notably a five-game winning streak in December which included the previous trip to Mytishchi – but little to suggest that the team’s problems have been solved.
That said, there is depth to Barys’ scoring, with Jakob Lilja, Linus Videll, Nikita Mikhailis and Roman Starchenko all reaching 30+ points this season among the forwards. And Darren Dietz, plundering 32 points from the blue line, remains a potent threat. Even if 2020/21 has been a disappointing campaign in Kazakhstan, this team remains a dangerous opponent.
Dynamo Moscow (Feb. 26)
Last time out: A 3-6 defeat in Moscow was notable for two firsts: Jason Fram and Ethan Werek both potted their first goals of the season late in the game.
Familiar faces: There are no connections between the clubs among the playing staff, but behind the bench it’s a different story. Alexei Kovalev’s pro career began with Dynamo in 1989/90, back in the old Soviet championship. And assistant Slava Kozlov also played in blue-and-white, albeit for a brief spell in 2011/12, towards the end of his long career.
Background: This game promises to be a fascinating clash of two coaches at opposite ends of their career. Our own Alexei Kovalev is completing his first season behind the bench – and has acquitted himself well in trying circumstances to build a team that has steadily improved throughout the campaign. Against us, though, is Vladimir Krikunov – a man with 400 games as head coach of Dynamo alone. His career behind the bench started back in 1985 as head coach of Dinamo Minsk, he’s led both Belarus and Russia to Olympic Games and, at the age of 70, is very much the ‘father’ of the KHL. Will the young pretender overcome the voice of experience this time? We’ll find out at the weekend.