No happy return for coach

22 October 2021

SKA St. Petersburg 7 Kunlun Red Star 0

The Dragons head coach Ivano Zanatta’s previous experience as a head coach in the KHL came in St. Petersburg, where he took charge of SKA during the 2010/11 season. Back then, the Neva team was not the hockey powerhouse we know today: instead of a team stacked with talented youngsters and seasoned with high quality experienced players, Zanatta’s roster was an awkward patchwork of long-serving KHLers and expensively collected players persuaded to return from the NHL. Expectations were high, but an uneven line-up made it difficult to live up to the board’s requirements on the ice.

Today was our coach’s first return to SKA in a competitive capacity and, unfortunately, it proved to be one to forget. A seven-goal loss matches our two other heaviest defeats: 1-8 at home to SKA in 2017 and 0-7 at Avtomobilist in 2020.

There were challenges even before the game started, with a lack of goaltending cover forcing the club to scramble to get Igor Saprykin signed on an emergency contract. He’s previously played KHL with Vityaz and has been with Sokol in the VHL this term but had a watching brief tonight as Jeremy Smith continued as our starter.

And, for the first few minutes, it wasn’t bad watching either. A great play in the third minute saw Alex Riche get the puck in the home net, only for a bench challenge to see the play whistled off for the tightest of offside calls.

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That seemed to unsettle the guys. Within a minute, SKA was in front. Another two minutes, and we took a penalty which led to a second goal. Next, Nikita Gusev potted his first since returning to the KHL as our defense got in each other’s way at a face-off. Late in the opening frame, we created some chances again and Spencer Foo hit the post with a backhand effort before Riche went narrowly wide off a Sam Hu feed. But the next blow was always coming, and duly arrived when Linden Vey got his second of the night after Smithy failed to hold on to his shot. SKA thought it had a fifth, but a video review confirmed that Smith pulled off a great save to stop the puck on the goal line.

Denis Osipov was asked what had to improve and summed it up in a single word: “Everything!” And, despite the grim situation, in the second period it did improve. Significantly. The middle frame was goalless – and not just because the home team eased off. Our PK improved, neutralizing an 81-second 3-on-5 situation and for much of the play we were able to compete with our host. There were even a few presentable chances in front of Lars Johansson, but the finishing touch just wasn’t quite there from the Foos, nor from Luke Lockhart.

Unfortunately, that improvement could not carry into the third. Ivan Morozov quickly added a fifth before Joonas Kemppainen got another power play tally. And there was no mercy in the closing minutes as SKA demonstrated its determination to play a full 60-minute game. Kemppainen made it 7-0 in the last minute, converting a 5-on-3 power play and completing a day to forget for the Dragons.

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