On the road to a new season

1 September 2021

The wait is over, and competitive action is back. The Dragons roar into life again this week as the 14th KHL season – and our sixth – gets underway. Incoming head coach Ivan Zanatta takes charge of his first competitive games in Tatarstan as we kick off with a road trip that takes in Neftekhimik and Ak Bars.

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Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk (Sep. 2)

Last season: It was all about goals when we met the Wolves last term. Four meetings between the teams produced 36 goals. As you’d expect, all the games were tight and three of them were settled by a single goal. Red Star enjoyed a win on its last visit to Nizhnekamsk when two goals from Ethan Werek led the team to a 5-4 victory in December. Spencer Foo, Tyler Wong and Hunter Shinkaruk were also on target that day.

Familiar faces: Neftekhimik defenseman Mikhail Sidorov played a handful of games for the Dragons at the start of last season before moving to Tatarstan in October.

Background: We saw plenty of Neftekhimik during the summer, and our recent visit to Nizhnekamsk for a couple of warm-up games was notable for the debut of a host of home-grown talent. From goalie Han Pengfei, to defensemen Zhang Pengfei, Yan Ruinan and Chen Zimeng, plus forwards Zhong Wei, Sam Hu, Ying Rudi, Guo Jianing, Xiang Xudong, Zhang Zesen and Zhang Cheng, these games featured a roster that was truly ‘made in China’.

True, this line-up did not deliver a win. But there were encouraging signs: Hu’s goal off a Wei Zhong feed showed that Chinese players can contribute at KHL level, and our guys are learning with every shift.

For Neftekhimik, a team likely to be close to us in the Eastern Conference playoff race this season, Thursday’s game will be the first competitive engagement under new head coach Oleg Leontiyev. The Wolves will hope to bounce back from a 3-7 loss at Ak Bars in the last pre-season game.

Ak Bars Kazan (Sep. 4)

Last season: Both our games against last season’s Eastern Conference champion ended in defeat, with the Dragons going down 2-5 on home ice and 1-3 in Kazan. Trevor Murphy scored in that road loss, and earned himself a trade to the Tatar powerhouse.

Familiar faces: Defenseman Lev Starikov is on a two-way contract in Kazan after playing 49 games for the Dragons in his rookie season last year. The 20-year-old is likely to spend the bulk of his time at Bars, the Ak Bars farm club. Murphy, who arrived from Red Star last season, has already moved on to join Sibir.

Background: This game promises to be a big test right at the start of our season. Ak Bars is always a dominant force in the KHL and, after extensive work on the roster in the summer, Dmitry Kvartalnov’s team will be expected to make a serious bid for a fourth Gagarin Cup in franchise history. Club legend Danis Zaripov is beginning his final season as a player on a roster with an entirely new stable of imports: gone are Nigel Dawes and Stephane da Costa, prolific in regular season but disappointing in the playoffs. Steven Kampfer, an experienced NHL defenseman, has settled in quickly, while there’s Russia scoring talent available in the form of Dmitry Kagarlitsky and Nikolai Kovalenko. But, with so many changes, could Ak Bars be vulnerable early in the campaign?

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