Victory on a day of milestones

21 December 2022

Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk 2 Kunlun Red Star 3 SO

This was a game full of individual highlights, and it all added up to a big team win. The Dragons defeated Neftekhimik for the third time this season, collecting our third shoot-out success of the current campaign. That, too, is a notable improvement. In each of the two previous seasons, Red Star managed just one shoot-out victory. Once again, the evidence suggests that the club is rebuilding effectively in the post-Olympic era.

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What of the individual milestones? Well, let’s start with the hardest-working man in hockey. Goalie Jeremy Smith made his 100th appearance for Kunlun today. Over his three previous seasons on the team, we’ve become used to seeing Smitty make save after save to keep us in games. Today, as he became the first of our goalies to play 100 times, he added another 30 saves to his collection before securing that shoot-out win. Only one of Neftekhimik’s four attempts beat him; the other three duels were comprehensive wins for the goalie with each effort missing the target. Psychological pressure, expertly applied.

While Smith is one of our longest-serving players, Tomas Jurco is one of our newest acquisitions. The Slovak international joined us late in November, collecting two assists on his debut in a 5-2 win over Sochi. Today, he grabbed his first goal for the Dragons, tying the game midway through the second period.

Jurco’s tally was something of a ‘no-look pass’. It followed a Zac Leslie shot that got tangled up in traffic in front of the Neftekhimik net. Tomas had his back to goal and looked for a backhand feed to keep the puck in the danger zone. That worked out even better than planned, with Andrei Tikhomirov losing track of the puck altogether as it found its way in at the far post.

The goal cancelled out a first period opener from Ansel Galimov, and was a fair reward for a much-improved display in the second period. Initially, perhaps, our guys were guilty of giving Neftekhimik too much respect, but once we began to play on an equal footing the pattern of the game changed sharply. And that unwillingness to be taken for granted manifested itself late in the second period when a hard hit on Jack Rodewald saw Jake Chelios wade into action to defend his team-mate. Chelios took over peacemaking duties from the suspended Garet Hunt and remonstrated with Andrei Chivilyov. Rodewald himself also got stuck in, exchanging opinions with Mikhail Nazarov.

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In the third period, Red Star got ahead for the first time in the game with Leslie adding a goal to his earlier assist. Those two points take Zac to 29 (7+22) points for this season, which is already the best points return for a defenseman representing our club. And there’s still a third of the season to play. This goal wasn’t a typical blue-liner effort, though. Kyle Wood’s point shot was an orthodox D-man play, but Leslie’s positioning on the doorstep to redirect the puck past Tikhomirov would have delighted any center.

It wasn’t quite enough to seal the win. Neftekhimik tied it up with a short-handed goal and we had to do it all again in overtime. The extras could not separate the teams, but when it came to the shoot-out Smith proved too good for our host and Leslie, fittingly, scored the goal that put the game beyond Neftekhimik’s reach.

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