Marching into the playoff battle

26 October 2023

KRS hits the road again

The Dragons have a couple of road games to finish off the week, and both match-ups involve teams in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race. Traktor is currently inside the top eight but struggling for consistency, while Neftekhimik is below the dotted line but welcomes us on something of a tear.

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For our part, that long-awaited win in Dinamo Minsk has not solved every problem, but there are encouraging signs from subsequent games – taking a point from Barys and giving SKA a real scare on home ice, plus celebrating a first Red Star goal for Teemu Pulkkinen and Devin Brosseau’s 10th of the season.

Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk, Oct. 27, 1930 Moscow Time

Last time out: Our first encounter with the Wolves this season was a rollercoaster ride. Red Star fell to 0-2 midway through the first period, rallied to lead 3-2 on goals from Yipper, Colin Campbell and Parker Foo, but eventually lost out in overtime after a 3-3 tie. Our last road win in Nizhnekamsk came back in December 2022 when Zac Leslie potted a shoot-out winner after a 2-2 tie.

Familiar faces: Former Dragons defenseman Nikita Khlystov is having a solid season this term. His +8 rating is the best plus/minus score on the team, and he’s at an impressive +6 over the past five games. Fellow D-man Mikhail Sidorov also has a short spell with us. In our ranks, Brandon McMillan makes his first return to Nizhnekamsk, where he played 23 games for seven points in 2020/21.

Background: Despite that recent hard-fought loss, Neftekhimik remains one of the KHL teams against whom the Dragons have a winning record. In 23 head-to-head encounters, we have 13 wins (10 regulation, one OT, two shoot-out) against 10 losses (nine regulation, one OT). However, the form book suggests we’ll need to be at our best to improve on that record. Neftekhimik’s win in Mytishchi kickstarted a five-game winning streak as the Wolves began the long haul from the foot of the Eastern Conference.

The turnaround was much needed. Oleg Leontiev’s team won just one of its first eight games, and suffered a 0-8 hammering at Barys along the way. But we’ve seen this in Nizhnekamsk before: last season brought a slow start and an extensive rebuild of the roster before the team climbed the table and made the playoffs.

The upswing coincides with the arrival of Dmitry Sokolov, previously of Dinamo Minsk. He made his debut against the Dragons, and went on to score five (3+2) points in his last three games. Dmitry Zhukenov also picked up his scoring pace, with five of his six points this season coming in the last five games. That includes both goals in a 2-0 win over SKA.

Traktor Chelyabinsk, Oct. 29, 1500 Moscow Time

Last season: Last year’s trip to Chelyabinsk brought a 1-3 loss for the Dragons, but there was better news on home ice with an overtime success. Brandon Yip got the decisive goal after a late equalizer from Cory Kane forced a 2-2 tie.

Familiar faces: Teemu Pulkkinen will need no introduction to the Chelyabinsk crowd on his return this weekend. The Finn had two seasons with the club, scoring 38 goals and 27 assists in 122 appearances. Recently he scored his first goal since joining the Dragons, moving him to 100 career markers in the KHL.

Background: It’s been a frustrating season for Traktor. Impressive on occasion, particularly with two South Ural derby wins over Metallurg in the past week, the Chelyabinsk team has been unable to string together consistent results. That cost Anvar Gatiyatulin his job as head coach and put Alexei Zavarukhin in the hot seat (his first game as interim boss provided a KHL first as he faced his cousin, Nikolai Zavarukhin, at Avtomobilist).

The coaching change has not yet had a profound impact on results. Zavarukhin has won two and lost three so far. Traktor lies in seventh place at the time of writing, but in a section where just five points separates Avangard (sixth) and Barys (tenth), it’s hardly a comfortable position in the playoff race. The recent 4-2 win at Metallurg offers some encouragement, though. Anton Burdasov made a scoring return from injury, while Semyon Der-Arguchintsev found the net twice. Der-Arguchintsev is another player who has struggled with injury this season, missing most of October after a decent start to the campaign.

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