Lucky number seven: 77 points, 7th place, 7 points clear
Source: Club Press-Office
KUNLUN RED STAR 2 SLOVAN BRATISLAVA 0
With just two home games left on the schedule for the current campaign, the key task for Kunlun is ensuring that hockey comes back to Beijing in February. And the way to achieve that, of course, is to clinch a playoff place in the Eastern Conference and set up a best-of-seven series against one of the KHL’s big-hitters to follow the end of the regular season on February 18.
It’s poised to be a nervous battle, with Sibir, Neftekhimik and Avtomobilist also looking up to the top eight and hoping to sneak in before the music stops.
Today’s opponent, Slovan, came to us in a similar position in the West. The Slovaks looked to be out of contention at the end of last year, but a run of nine wins in 10 games has put Milos Riha and his men on the cusp of the playoffs once again. The only loss in that sequence? At home to Kunlun on Jan. 5, when power play goals from Tomas Marcinko and Sean Collins secured a 2-1 win in overtime.
With both sides treading something of a tightrope in terms of achieving their playoff ambitions, this was always destined to be a tight encounter – and one where grabbing the first goal would be crucial. Slovan made the brighter start, and it took some sharp reactions from Tomi Karhunen to keep the scoresheet blank early on.
But once again, the Kunlun power play made the difference as Collins opened the scoring in the 18th minute. Before the game, Slovan’s official Twitter feed had noted the prowess of our special teams, but forewarned proved not to be forearmed. Andrej Stastny and Barry Brust picked up minors in quick succession, and the 5-on-3 advantage proved crucial. Tuukka Mantyla fired in a shot from deep. Brust blocked it, but coughed up a big rebound. Then some acrobatics from the airborne Joonas Jarvinen saw the Finn display great presence of mind to get his stick down and push the puck beyond the goalie’s reach, while Collins gleefully smashed it into the net from close range.
The second period saw Kunlun dominate for long stretches, limiting Slovan to just three looks at Tomi Karhunen’s net. But the vital second goal would not come, with Brust proving a tough obstacle at the other end. It wasn’t until deep into the third period, with Slovan looking for more menacing, that we finally made the points safe thanks to Alexei Ponikarovsky’s goal on a classic counter-attack. Brett Bellemore cleared our lines, Marcinko produced an instinctive pass into space where the Poni Express was galloping forwards to meet the puck on the edge of the face-off circle and sweep a one-timer into the top corner.
That took the sting out of the final siege that Slovan was hoping to lay at our goalmouth and two goals – plus 29 saves to give Karhunen his 3rd shut-out of the season – were enough for a victory that moves Red Star up to seventh place in the Eastern Conference. That’s a 77-point tally, seven points clear of ninth-placed Sibir with seven games left to play. Traditionally in China, eight is the lucky number; but as the year of the monkey comes to an end, lucky number seven might be gaining popularity.