Sun’s rise continues

16 February 2023

Vityaz Moscow Region 5 Kunlun Red Star 1

Today brought another chapter in the history of our club, and of Chinese hockey. Sun Zehao, our popular goalie, made his first start for the team. That’s a significant step forward for the national team program and the experience can only help Sun when he goes to the World Championship in April.

At that World Championship, he is unlikely to face opponents at quite this level. Division IB of the IIHF system is not studded with KHL experience. Indeed, among the competing teams, only Estonia’s Robert Rooba has played much hockey in our league. So today was very much a learning curve for Sun, and the other Chinese talent on the team.

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Although the final scoreline reads rather lopsided, it would be hard to lay all the blame for that at Sun’s door. For 40 minutes, the Dragons were very much in this game. Vityaz, despite being assured of a playoff spot, still has to ensure as high a position as possible to escape a thankless task against the likes of SKA in the opening round. As a result, Vyacheslav Butsayev’s team had no intention of relaxing in this game. However, it was in no way easy for Vityaz to get control of the play.

Yes, the home team opened the scoring on Vladislav Kara’s goal midway through the first period. But the Dragons hit back, with Jack Rodewald tying the game before the intermission. Rodewald forced an error from the home defense thanks to his vigorous pressing, German Tochilkin retrieved the puck and used it to set up Jack for a close-range finish on the turn. That took Rodewald to 10 goals and 25 points in his rookie KHL campaign.

Unfortunately, Vityaz regained the lead early in the second, and this time our host was not about to offer a way back into the game. Midway through the frame, Red Star got its only power play of the evening, but was unable to turn it into a goal. Subsequently, Vityaz began to get on top. Our guys took too many penalties and that disrupted the flow of our game. Even so, come the second intermission there was still just one goal between the teams.

At the start of the third, Tyler Graovac extended the Vityaz advantage. Then those penalties began to take their toll as Scott Wilson redirected a Jeremy Roy shot for a power play goal. A fifth tally from Alexander Yaremchuk gave the home team a slightly flattering 5-1 lead. For Sun, it was turning into a heavy defeat, but not one where the goalie should carry the bulk of the blame. Head coach Ireland acknowledged that the third period was not in keeping with what came before, and highlighted the challenge of staying competitive while taking so many penalties. Overall, though, he felt that our weakness came from failing to clear our zone properly – the kind of ‘invisible’ error that invites sustained pressure on the goal and ultimately drains energy and puts the opposition on top. Even at this late stage of the season, there’s still plenty for our players to work on.

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