Saturday saw the opening game of the Sochi Hockey Open – the third preseason tournament to feature KHL clubs and one with a formidable list of participants, divided into two groups of three:

Group А: SKA (Saint Petersburg), Metallurg (Magnitogorsk), Kunlun Red Star (Beijing)
Group B: HC Sochi, Russia Olympic Team, and Team Canada

SKA vs. Kunlun Red Star: 4-2 (2-1, 0-0, 2-1)

For Saturday's curtain-raiser, the organizers chose two teams for whom the previous season was an undisputed runaway success. The team from Beijing only existed on paper a little over a year ago, yet they qualified for the playoffs in their debut season, while the northern capital's Army Men won the Gagarin Cup with the kind of swashbuckling, attacking hockey which persuades hordes of youngsters to grab their skates, sticks and pucks and try to emulate their heroes.

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Cheered on by a large contingent of fans from Petersburg, Oleg's Znarok's champions swiftly seized the initiative and had their opponents on the back foot for much of the opening skirmishes, and when an early power play came their way, Alexander Barabanov gratefully took full advantage.

Any hopes of a rout, however, were certainly misplaced. No-one should expect a Mike Keenan team to surrender, and when the match had reached the 15-minute mark with no further goals from the Petersburg Men, there was a hint of inevitability about Red Star's leveler: Andrei Kostitsyn's fierce shot from the blue line could only be parried by Mikko Koskinen, and Brandon Yip pounced to make it 1-1. Then it was SKA's turn to show its mettle. Mr. Barabanov clearly took exception to seeing his goal canceled out, and 30 seconds before the first interval he forced the coaches to re-write their team talks by grabbing a second.

The second period was competitive enough, but sporadic outbreaks of fisticuffs meant the officials were often busier than the goaltenders. There were several two-minute penalties for Kunlun players and one for Ilya Kovalchuk, but the scoreboard operators were not called into action until the final minutes of the third period.

And that final action-packed spell belonged to Barabanov. The 23-year-old completed his hat-trick with a 54th-minute, ricochet-assisted goal, and while the “Dragons” showed their teeth once more with Brandon Yip's second of the game, Barabanov had the last word with a last-minute empty-netter.

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SKA head coach Oleg Znarok

“It was only our second outing, after the game in Finland against Jokerit, and the team has already put in some very hard preseason training. Some things have come off well and others haven't, but it's good that we've won...

… As for the absent ones, Voynov and Zubarev are still recovering from injuries sustained last season, and we expect to have them back before the end of September. Datsyuk is back in full training with the team, but we won't rush into anything. I think that by the time the Nikolai Puchkov Tournament (August 14 – 17) comes around, we'll have the Kovalchuk – Datsyuk – Plotnikov line back in action.

As for Barabanov, we'll just do all we can to ensure he keeps producing his best hockey, at least until the end of February (smiles).”

Kunlun Red Star head coach Mike Keenan:

“It was a good game, and it allowed us to have a look at the players who had no experience of hockey at this level. From our point of view, I'm glad we played against the reigning champion, because it is in battles against this kind of opponent that we can evaluate the level that we'll demand of our team. Our players are beginning to understand what is expected of them in order that they become one of the League's leading clubs.

Building a team takes time, but we'll make definite progress over the course of the season. It is not easy creating a system - you can only test it against opponents in competitive conditions, and we and the players need time to get to know one another.”

PHOTO: 05.08.17. Sochi Hockey Open. SKA (St.Petersburg) - Kunlun Red Star (Beijing)

Goals: 1:0 – Barabanov (Shirokov, Koskiranta, 01.50), 1:1 – Yip (Vorobei, Kostitsyn, 15.15), 2:1 – Barabanov (Zub, Koskiranta, 19.29), 3:1 – Barabanov (53.14), 3:2 – Yip (Kostitsyn, Daloga, 57.56), 4:2 – Barabanov (59.11)

Goaltenders: Koskinen – Hellberg

HC Sochi vs. Russian Olympic Team: 1-5 (0-3, 0-1, 1-1)

Host team HC Sochi was faced with the unenviable task of starting the tournament against a Russian Olympic Team, formed as a stepping-stone to Oleg Znarok's Team Russia, and therefore packed with players who hope to represent their country at next year's Winter Olympics.

As might be expected, it proved a stern test for the southerners and they headed into the first interval already 3-0 down. Lokomotiv's Alexander Polunin produced a precision strike over Konstantin Barulin's shoulder for an early opener, and his fellow Railwaymen combined to make it 2-0 inside the first five minutes – Pavel Kraskovsky's sublime pass setting up Yegor Korshkov to score. Just before the interval, Ak Bars forward Stanislav Galiyev, back on Russian ice after his stint in North America, notched a third.

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Sochi steadied the ship after the interval and spent much of the second period probing and pressing around Ilya Shestyorkin's goal, but a few minutes before the second intermission the hosts found themselves playing 3-on-5, and another Ak Bars man, Vladimir Tkachyov, hit Russia's fourth. The home fans finally had something to cheer in the 52nd minute, when Pavel Padakin beat Ilya Shestyorkin in power play, but the four-goal margin was restored within minutes by that formidable Lokomotiv line - Polunin and Korshkov combined and Pavel Kraskovsky finished the move.

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Russian Olympic Team head coach Oleg Bratash :

“It wasn't a bad game. We won because we took our scoring chances and we played well as a unit when killing penalties. As for the Yaroslavl line, the results speak for themselves – they got three of our five goals...

… I was very pleased with the young players, and when we sent on Andrei Altybarmakyan in the third period he did everything right in every episode, apart from the last one, when he should have scored but decided instead to dazzle us with his skills (smiles).

I remind everyone that our goal is to help the senior Russian national team, and if Oleg Znarok decides that we need to try out some older players here, then that is what we'll do.”

HC Sochi head coach Sergei Zubov:

“Both teams had chances to score. I won't name-and-shame anyone, but some players got over-emotional and others were struggling to adjust to hockey at this level. We are trying to have a look at all our players, and for some of them this is a great test. We have a lot of important games ahead of us and we're looking to the future with optimism. No, I had no desire to take Barulin off after the second goal, and he will keep goal for us tomorrow.”

PHOTO: 05.08.17. Sochi Hockey Open. HC Sochi (Sochi) - Russia Team

Goals: Polunin – 0:1 (Kaprizov, 02.14), Korshkov – 0:2 (Kraskovsky, 4.49), Galiyev – 0:3 (Kaprizov, 19.05), Tkachyov – 0:4 (Chudinov, Khafizullin, 36.13), Padakin – 1:4 (51.35), Kraskovsky – 1:5 (Polunin, Korshkov, 53.51)

Goaltenders: Barulin – Shestyorkin

Metallurg Novokuznetsk vs. Ak Bars: 0-5 (0-0, 0-3, 0-2)

Meanwhile, in the Nizhny Novgorod Governor’s Cup, Galiyev and Tkachyov's Ak Bars faced off against the men from Novokuznetsk, and it seems the men from Kazan, despite the absence of the forward pair on duty in Sochi, are still not lacking in firepower.

Metallurg coped admirably for the first half of the game, but after Artyom Mikheyev broke the deadlock in the 31st minute, the floodgates opened. Further goals from Jiri Sekac, Anton Glinkin, Fyodor Malykhin and Maxim Sidorov gave Ak Bars a 5-0 win and placed them at the top of the tournament table.

Standings after Day 5:

1. Ak Bars (4 games, 8 points); 
2. Salavat Yulaev (3,6); 
3. Torpedo (3,6) 
4. Avtomobilist (3,6); 
5. Spartak (3,4); 
6. Metallurg Novokuznetsk (4,0).

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