This year’s Eastern Conference playoffs will make history – for the KHL, for our newest team and for the world’s most populous nation. Kunlun Red Star, KHL newcomer, marked its first season in action by achieving a playoff place and will bring a piece of the big show to China for the first time ever.
It’s a remarkable success for a club that, this time last year, existed as little more than a business plan. For head coach Vladimir Yurzinov, the first challenge was to assemble a competitive roster in a matter of weeks during pre-season. Then there was the difficulty of juggling a huge travel itinerary in a league where Red Star’s closest rival was Admiral Vladivostok, 1,300km distant. And, if that wasn’t enough, the team needed to build a fanbase in a country where hockey is far from the public eye: a task made even harder by the need to relocate from its Beijing base to a second arena in Shanghai for most of the fall.
We ended up with a close-knit group that wants to play and win for each other.
But the team delivered on all fronts. A multi-national roster brought together players from Russia, Finland, Sweden, North America, Slovakia and France, plus a seasoning of Chinese prospects. That was enough to secure eighth place in the Eastern Conference to set up a playoff series against defending champion Metallurg Magnitogorsk while steadily building up a fanbase in Beijing and beyond.
For Alexei Ponikarovsky, one of the most experienced men on the roster, one of the key elements in the team’s success was the atmosphere in the locker room. Despite a team being flung together from scratch, he felt that the players quickly gelled.
“Like any successful team, it’s about that combination of having some pretty good players and having a good atmosphere in the locker room,” he said. “We’re a friendly team. Even though we have players from all over the world and everyone speaks different languages, we all understand English, so we ended up with a close-knit group that wants to play and win for each other.”
Ponikarovsky, who was part of SKA’s Gagarin Cup-winning team of 2015, brought bags of KHL know-how. But it was a KHL rookie, Chad Rau, who led the scoring charts for the team with 40 (20+20) points. He credits his individual success to a strong supporting cast.
“I’ve been able to play with good players,” said the 29-year-old American forward. “There’s a lot of depth on our team and I’ve been lucky to play on a line with some good guys. The team as a whole has been strong too, and once we started winning games that helped us a lot.”
Now attention turns to post-season, and despite a daunting assignment against a powerful Metallurg team, but nobody in the club is content to merely make up the numbers in the playoffs.
Now we have a big chance to prove that we are a great hockey club, for now and for the future
Goalie Tomi Karhunen, another KHL newcomer, has enjoyed confounding pre-season expectations and is eager for more of the same.
“Before we started there weren’t many people who expected much from us, but now we have a big chance to prove that we are a great hockey club, for now and for the future,” said the 27-year-old. “It’s been good so far, but I’m hoping that our best moments are still to come.”
Heading into next week’s series, Kunlun faces some new problems. The team finished the regular season on a three-game losing streak and might have missed out altogether had it not been for Sibir conceding a late equalizer in its final game on Saturday. To make matters worse, French forward Damien Fleury picked up a serious injury at Dynamo Moscow and will not feature again in the current campaign. Head coach Yurzinov admitted that the end of the season – and especially the disruption caused by the international break earlier this month – was far from ideal but felt that his team had played well in the circumstances.
And despite that losing streak, he is preparing to give the defending champion a run for its money. “We have to be ready to face a tough opponent,” he said after Saturday’s 1-2 loss at Dynamo. “But I think we have everything in place to put up a real fight against Magnitogorsk.”
Kunlun’s debut playoff campaign begins in Magnitogorsk on Wednesday. Beijing’s first taste of playoff action follows in game three of the best-of-seven series on February 26.