Closer to home

Source: Club Press-Office


Kunlun Red Star 1 Jokerit Helsinki 4

After that long, long tour to start our season, Red Star returned to China for its first home game of the 2017-18 campaign. Not quite back home to Beijing – our first action in the People’s Republic was played in Shanghai, where we spent much of the previous fall. But, after a seven-game road trip, the chance to settle into a more permanent venue meant a lot to our team. Saturday’s game also marked Gilbert Brule’s Kunlun debut: he arrived from Traktor in exchange for Richard Gynge, and slotted into the second line alongside Brandon DeFazio and Brandon Yip. In the process though he moved to first joining Andrei Kostitsyn and Wojtek Wolski.

The visit of Jokerit was also a game with extra significance. The Finnish club signed an agreement last summer, offering to help us develop hockey in China with support from some Nordic expertise. That’s a long-term project, but the short-term issue was all about adding to our KHL points tally and extending the four-game winning streak that lightened our load on the way home from Russia.

But Jokerit, for all their clownish imagery, are a serious proposition on the ice. Goalie Ryan Zapolski has impressed in the early stages of the season, while teen sensation Eeli Tolvanen grabbed the early headlines with a debut hat-trick and is showing signs of emerging as one of the next big stars of Finnish hockey. Zapolski showed his mettle in the first period, coming up big as Kunlun buzzed around his net in search of a breakthrough: even the Jokerit social media team admitted that the goalie was the main reason why the games was still goalless at the first intermission.

However, despite some lively offense in the early stages, the opening goal went against us. The counter-punch came on the power play midway through the second period when Danish forward Niklas Jensen found some space between the hash marks and ripped a wrister into the top corner. Things got worse early in the third when Marko Anttila doubled Jokerit’s lead, squeezing a shot through a crowd of players after a face off in the Kunlun zone.

Then came the recovery. Red Star got a power play almost right away, and converted the chance thanks to our own teen sensation, Pavel Vorobei. The 19-year-old Belarusian defenseman fired home from the point for his first KHL career goal, halving the deficit and giving our team a way back into the game.

Sadly, hopes of a fightback were quickly extinguished by Anttila’s second contribution of the game, feeding Antti Pihlstrom around the boards for the experienced forward to force a shot in off Magnus Hellberg’s skates. Anttila ended up in a fight with Cory Kane for his troubles, Pihlstrom finished up with a second goal, shooting into an empty net from deep inside his own zone to wrap up the game.

So our return to China did not play out as successfully as we hoped. But Saturday’s game, of course, is only the start. Red Star is back in action on Monday, taking on a high-flying CSKA Moscow team that has gone undefeated since the opening day of the season. The thing about streaks is that they have to come to an end. Can our guys force the Army Men to retreat from Shanghai empty handed?