Slowly but surely, the preseason gathers momentum, and as this working week comes to a close we have now had our first handful of practice matches to give us a glimpse of how preparations for the tenth Championship are progressing.
Strictly, the first practice match involving a KHL club took place during the previous week, in Kazakhstan, when Torpedo of Ust-Kamenogorsk hosted Barys. The hosts beat the men from the capital 6-2, but we should note that most of the Astana players were from the Snow Leopards youth team or the Nomad farm club.
Four days later, and around 2,500 miles to the West, we had our first all-KHL clash of the preseason, when the Pajulahti Sports Complex in Finland played host to a meeting between Traktor and Neftekhimik. Chelyabinsk boss Anvar Gatiyatulin fielded three full lines of youngsters, with the purpose, in his own words, of “giving them a taste of hockey at KHL level.”
The plan seemed a good one when home-grown forward Artyom Penkovsky fired Traktor ahead, but Neftekhimik, captained by former Chelyabinsk defenseman Oleg Piganovich, hit back with goals from Hanzl, Volgin, Sergeyev, Ogurtsov and Rau to seal an impressive 5-1 win for Andrei Nazarov’s men, who surely deserve the Performance of the Week title.
Meanwhile, in Central Europe, the new-look Kunlun Red Star team took a long bus journey from its camp in Switzerland to play a friendly in the Austrian town of Sankt Pölten, against a team assembled from players plying their trade in the local and German leagues, and boasting the grand title of Stars of Lower Austria. It was Mike Keenan’s Red Stars who were in the ascendancy, however, as a double from Rudi Ying, plus additional goals from Yuen, Jaw, Wong, Bellemore, Werek and Lyuduchin, gave the Chinese team an emphatic 8-0 victory.
Slovan head coach Milos Riha was in his native Czech Republic to watch his Bratislava Boys taken on local side Dynamo Pardubice in the first of two games on successive days. It was not an entirely joyful homecoming for the coach, who saw his team go into the first interval trailing 0-1 and then endured a second period in which neither side could trouble the scoreboard operator further. Slovan’s spirits were lifted in the third period with a goal from Boris Sadecky, but the optimism was short-lived and the home side triumphed 2-1 via the shootout.
Following Wednesday’s loss, the scene was set for “Riha’s Revenge” and similar post-rematch headlines, but unfortunately for the Slovaks, the previous day’s defeat was repeated and not avenged. The final score: Dynamo Pardubice 5-2 Slovan Bratislava.
There was some consolation for Milos Riha in the fact that he sent on an experimental side, and goals from Sloboda (to make the score 1-2) and Hrnka(2-3) kept the team in contention going into the second interval, but the Eagles allowed two unanswered goals in the final stanza to give the coach plenty on which to ponder.
It was a happier day for new Ugra head coach Igor Zakharkin in Belarus, as he saw his team fight back to overcome a two-goal deficit and seal a thrilling win over Neman Grodno via the shootout.
The Khanty-Mansiysk boss, who endured a turbulent 2016-17 season at Salavat Yulaev and would no doubt wish for as smooth a preseason as possible, saw his new team take a 7th-minute lead with a powerplay goal from Ivan Lekomtsev, but the Belarusians replied with three goals – two short-handed and one in powerplay – in a lively second period. However, Ugra’s stirring fightback began within 30 seconds of going 1-3 down. Konstantin Panov halved the deficit, Vitaly Shulakov leveled the score with 10 minutes of regulation remaining, and Andrei Ankudinov clinched a 4-3 win in the shootout.
After the game, Igor Zakharkin was full of praise for his players, but sounded a note of caution:
“What pleased me most about the team today was the movement and the desire, and I could see that some of the tactical work we’ve been doing over the last two weeks was put to good use on the ice. However, I did not like the fact that we spurned a lot of the scoring chances we created. When you play in the KHL, if you don’t convert such chances into goals, you get punished.”
There were no games on Friday, but the preseason campaign picks up pace next week with no fewer than 18 matches scheduled over the coming seven days.