Heroic fightback win in Kazan

5 September 2021

Ak Bars Kazan 3 Kunlun Red Star 4

That’s a result to silence the critics. Few outside of the Dragons’ lair gave our guys a chance of getting a result in Saturday’s game. Ak Bars, always a tough opponent, had given ample notice of its intent with an opening 3-0 win over Jokerit. By contrast, our first-game struggles were well known. Moreover, it’s fashionable for many commentators to doubt that Chinese hockey has the pedigree to compete in the KHL, never mind at Olympic level.

But the lack of belief outside our locker room merely reinforces the determination within it. Even at the first intermission, following an admittedly chastening opening frame, nobody on this team was giving up. True, the 20 minutes of hockey we saw in Kazan did not inspire confidence: Ak Bars outshot us 16-2 and looked good value for a 3-0 lead on goals from summer signings Per Lindholm, Nikolai Kovalenko and Kirill Panyukov.

As a team, and as a club, though, we have faced tougher challenges than this. And the beauty of sport is that things can change – and fast. Early in the middle frame, Brandon Yip pulled a goal back. We’ve often talked about our captain’s inspirational role within our club, and Chinese hockey in general. Today, he set the tone with a clinical finish after Josh Nicholls forced a turnover in center ice and dished off a feed to the far post where Yipper had gotten away from Jordan Weal.

Ak Bars continued to have the better of the play, but that goal had planted a seed. Yip’s goal was followed by a short-handed effort from Spencer Foo, reacting fast to the breakdown in our end and racing onto a loose puck. He drove past the blundering Nikita Lyamkin and went five-hole on young goalie Artur Akhtyamov to make it a one-goal game.

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A word about goalies at this stage. Alexander Lazushin made his first appearance of the season for the Dragons, and produced an inspired display. Under heavy fire in the first two periods, he came up with 33 stops in the first 40 minutes and added another 11 crucial saves in the third. Not bad for a player who struggled for form throughout last season in short and uncertain spells with us and Dinamo Riga. An in-form Lazer, in partnership with Jeremy Smith? That’s something for opposing forwards to ponder.

Another player whose career at KRS has been dogged with difficulties is Alex Riche. Signed in the summer of 2019 as a hugely promising prospect, his time here has been wrecked by injuries. Now, though, he has a full pre-season behind him – and, by the way, how good did he look in that pre-season? A fully fit Alex brings us offensive riches and he underlined that point with his first KHL goal to tie us up at the start of the third. He beat Akhtyamov at the second attempt, following up his own shot to bury the rebound.

At this point in play, most of the stats suggested that Ak Bars was well on top. Shots, possession, time on attack? It all favored the home team. But the only stat that really matters read 3-3, and self-belief was steadily making a move from one bench to the other. The third period was an even battle. Either team could have grabbed the go-ahead goal, but when Ak Bars took a penalty midway through, the stage was set. And who more appropriate than Luke Lockhart, a true Dragon warrior, to grab the winner? Foozy sent Jason Fram down the right-hand channel, his shot rapped Akhtyamov’s pads and squirted out to Luke on the edge of the left-hand circle. An angled shot ripped into the far corner and, from 0-3 down, we led 4-3.

There was still almost 10 minutes to defend that lead, and Lazushin cemented his own excellent performance with a further flurry of saves to keep the home team at bay and leave the Kazan crowd shellshocked. The Dragons have their first win of the season … and it’s a resonant one.

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