Dragons’ joy at dramatic win

27 October 2023

Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk 3 Kunlun Red Star 4 SO

This was a game that had everything. Down 0-2, the Dragons roared back to lead in the third, and seemed to have the job done. But with three seconds on the clock, Neftekhimik tied the scores to save their five-game unbeaten streak. The late drama merely delayed the inevitable, though. Red Star has shone in shoot-outs this season, and made it four wins from five in post-game contests to take the verdict from an entertaining evening’s work.

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Matt Jurusik got the start in goal, and went on to play a key role in the win. He made some monster saves in regulation – notably a couple in quick succession with the scores at 2-2 – then proved perfect in that shoot-out. Other changes from the defeat to SKA saw Cliff Pu rested in favor of Alex Riche, and Kyle Wood replace Doyle Somerby on defense.

Neftekhimik came into the game full of confidence after a five-game winning streak. However, we knew there was not much between these teams: that run began with an OT win in Mytishchi that might easily have seen us celebrating the victory. In the first period, there wasn’t much to choose between the teams. Neftekhimik had a slight edge, but nothing that would seem exceptional for a home team, nor for a team that got a couple of powerplay chances. Crucially, after errors undermined our previous performance against the Wolves, there was far more precision in the Dragons’ play tonight.

That didn’t mean anyone could relax, though. The second period brought early warning signs: Jurusik made a big early save, in form Dmitry Sokolov dinged the bar, then Dmitry Zhukenov went one-on-one only for Juice to stretch out and deny the home forward. The pressure led to Danila Popov opening the scoring, and there was worse to come when we faced two minutes of three-on-five penalty kill. As on home ice, self-inflicted problems were punished and Neftekhimik doubled its lead.

It was vital to get back into the game before the intermission, and five seconds before the break, we did it. Jake Chelios produced a superb snipe to halve the deficit and rewrite some of coach Ignatjevs’ team talk.

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Going into the final frame with a one-goal deficit usually gives grounds for optimism. Doing it after scoring the last goal of the second period adds greater belief. And when one of your defensemen pulls off something special, you start to think it could be your night. You’ll be seeing Ryan Merkley’s effort in October’s goal of the month lists for sure, and by rights you’ll see it again in the goal of the season nominations. Neftekhimik thought it was a simple business to pass the puck through center ice; Ryan stepped in to take possession on the red line and then he started to show his skills. He moved into the home zone, eschewed the predictable path to his left, away from the covering defencemen, and instead tiptoed between two opponents, hypnotizing goalie Filipp Dolganov and firing home from a tight angle to tie the game.

Neftekhimik tried to respond but found that Jurusik had seen it all before. And, after another turnover in center ice Luke Lockhart put us in front when he fired home Merkley drop pass to the slot.

Now it was all about whether we could close out the win. On 59:47, when Zhukenov and Devin Brosseau took parallel roughing penalties, it felt like we had it. Ten seconds later, though, Alexander Dergachyov was celebrating a tying goal and our guys faced a mental struggle to bounce back immediately and compete in OT. The extras saw penalties for both teams – our old friend Nikita Khlystov for them, and our new boy Teemu Pulkkinen for us. But there were no goals. Neftekhimik decided to bring back-up goalie Dmitry Nikolayev off the bench for the shoot-out, while Viktors Ignatjevs continued to trust the impressive Jurusik. And that faith was amply rewarded. Juice stopped everything Neftekhimik had, while at the other end Lockhart and McMillan had the answers to Nikolayev. For the fourth time in five shoot-outs, Red Star came out on top and celebrated another road win.

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