Defending champions Salavat Yulaev Ufa sent out a strong warning to their potential challengers this season with a thrilling 5-3 come-back win in the opening game of the KHL season.
The big game, delayed after the tragic Yaroslavl plane crash and renamed the Lokomotiv Cup in tribute to those killed, gave Russian hockey a vital pick-me-up after days of anguish.
Last season’s Gagarin Cup finalists served up a terrific battle – and a fitting tribute to their late colleagues – as Salavat Yulaev battled back from 3-0 down to clinch a hard-fought victory over Atlant Moscow Region. It was last season’s runners-up who took an early stranglehold on the game, racing to a 3-0 first period lead thanks to new signing Patrik Zakrisson.
The mood in Ufa was understandably somber at the start as the capacity crowd gathered both to mourn Wednesday’s disaster as well as cheer on their heroes. But once Igor Grigorenko fired the hosts in front for the first time on 48:56, converting an Alexander Radulov pass, the crowd went crazy once again. And the pair combined in the last minute to give Grigorenko an empty-net goal to wrap up a 5-3 win.
The game had looked to be swinging in the hosts’ favor in the final stanza: Richard Stehlik leveled the scores on 44:21, firing home a precise shot over Konstantin Barulin’s shoulder from Robert Nilsson’s perceptive pass and within moments Jakub Klepis found himself one-on-one, only to be denied by the star of last season’s play-off.
That completed a remarkable turnaround, but it was far from the end of the game. The visitors were to enjoy a 46-second 5-on-3 powerplay, but were unable to take full advantage with Branko Radivojevic firing narrowly wide and Patrik Zakrisson unable to force the puck home from close range as Erik Ersberg performed heroics in the Ufa goal.
The home side held on, however, to give new coach Sergei Mikhalyov a winning start to the defense of the title won under the guidance of Vyacheslav Bykov last season.
The early stages had been completely different, with Atlant adapting better to the understandably subdued atmosphere and racing into a 3-0 first period lead. Zakrisson opened the scoring inside three minutes, unassisted, and when Rafael Batyrshin doubled the visitors’ lead on 03:23 it looked like the men from Mytishchi were on course to kick-off the campaign with something of an upset.
And the new-look attacking line of Zakrisson, Radivojevic and NHL legend Alexei Kovalev combined to make it 3-0 on 17:30, with Vladislav Kartayev sitting out a hooking penalty to put the visitors in total control.
In response, it need of an intervention from an old hand, and shortly after the halfway mark veteran Pyotr Schastlivy gave his team a lifeline. And a powerplay goal from Yury Trubachyov on 36:45 ensured there was everything still to play for in the final stages.
Lions wounded on KHL debut
Slovakia’s Lev Poprad became the first team from outside the former USSR to compete in the KHL – but an enthusiastic home crowd could not inspire the Lions of the Tatras to victory over Metallurg Magnitogorsk.
The Ural side, widely fancied for a title challenge this season, proved too strong for the new boys as the season got off to a delayed start.
But the home side showed sides that they can be a difficult opponent as they aim to make the play-offs at the first time of asking. In the first period they kept their guests at bay and it took a powerplay goal from Anton But shortly after the restart to finally break their resistance.
Experienced captain Lubos Bartecko got both of them, proving that he’s lost none of his sharpness in front of goal, but an empty-net effort from But ensured that there was to be no fairytale fightback.
Mixed fortunes for Moscow
CSKA made a winning start under new coach Julius Supler, overcoming Yugra Khanty-Mansiysk 3-2 in Moscow. Sergei Andronov put the army men ahead after just 1:49, and Ilya Zubov doubled that advantage in the first period. Sergei Shirokov made it 3-0 early in the second period, and despite powerplay goals from the visitors’ Alexei Pepelyayev and Pavel Vorobyov CSKA held on to claim victory.
City rivals Dynamo also made a flying start to their game away to Severstal, but it was all downhill after Dominik Granak’s powerplay goal put them in front after just 60 seconds. Bogdan Kiselevich leveled the scores in the second period, and the Steelmen clinched the win with powerplay goals from Vadim Shipachyov and Evgeny Ketov early in the third.
Around the League
There was another impressive comeback with for Dinamo Minsk, who thrashed highly fancied Avangard Omsk 4-1 in Belarus. The Siberian visitors struck first through Alexander Frolov on 9:36 and held onto that lead until the final period. But then the home team raised their game, rattling in goals from Dmitry Meleshko, Charles Linglet (2) and Andrei Mikhalyov to record a resounding victory.
In Chelyabinsk, locals Traktor were held 2-2 by Metallurg Novokuznetsk. Stanislav Chistov finally gave the hosts victory in the shoot-out, helped by two saves from goalkeeper Michael Garnett, who denied Randy Robitail and Alexei Medvedev. The hosts might have felt they had done enough in regulation time, firing 31 shots on Teemu Lassila’s goal to the 17 mustered by Metallurg, but only Maxim Yakuntsenya and Vladimir Antipov found the net. Alexander Golovin and Denis Tyurin got the Metallurg goals.