The opening day of the KHL season went ahead in unusual circumstances. There was no full house at CSKA Arena, and none of the traditional festivities outside in the Moscow twilight. Instead, the 2,000 or so fans who were permitted to attend the Opening Cup were greeted by reminders to keep their distance from one another around the building. It’s a strange new world, but bringing back even a reduced, carefully distanced crowd in a safety-conscious atmosphere represented a huge step forward from the last game played in this venue back in March, when Spartak and Dynamo concluded their first round playoff series in front of empty seats.
On the ice, meanwhile, the intensity of the action was no different from usual. Both CSKA and Ak Bars have high hopes of lifting the Gagarin Cup this season and today’s curtain raiser represented a first chance for the two teams to show how they might look now the warm-ups are over. For Ak Bars, there was great interest in how the top line would perform, with summer signings Nigel Dawes and Stephane Da Costa joining Stanislav Galiyev. The second line also promised intrigue, with Dmitry Voronkov, who celebrates his 20th birthday next week, joining last season’s break-out star Artyom Galimov and long-serving goal-getter Justin Azevedo in a new combination.
The Army Men, meanwhile, began life without goalie Ilya Sorokin by handing Alexander Sharychenkov the start. Nikolai Goldobin, a possible replacement for Kirill Kaprizov, slotted into the first line with Andrei Loktionov and Anton Slepyshev.
It wasn’t long before that line engineered the first goal of the season, with Slepyshev and Loktionov among the assists. But it wasn’t Goldobin on the scoresheet. Instead, the first goal of the 2020-2021 season went to debutant defenseman Dmitry Samorukov. Just 51 seconds into the game, on his first ever shift in the KHL, the 21-year-old blue liner smashed a point shot through traffic to squeeze past Adam Reideborn on the short side. His goal was also noted in Edmonton: Samorukov is one of several young players loaned to the KHL this season to help their development while the progress of the NHL’s 2020-2021 campaign remains unclear.
Reideborn may feel he should have got more than a glove to that puck, but he produced an important save later to stop a Maxim Mamin breakaway. Towards the end of the first, he also came up with a big save to thwart a 2-on-1 CSKA break, stopping Ivan Telegin’s shot. Ak Bars also had chances though, the best of them coming midway through the session with the teams playing 4-on-4. Voronkov stole the puck away from Goldobin as the new CSKA forward looked to bring play out of his own zone. Voronkov bore down on Sharychenkov’s goal but steered his shot past the post as the defense scrambled to recover.
One thing we didn’t see for either team in the opening period was a power play. In the second, though, Ak Bars needed just 11 seconds to convert its first attempt. Dmitry Kvartalnov’s team moved the puck smoothly around the CSKA zone for Da Costa to shoot home impressively from the top of the circle. The Frenchman previously played under Kvartalnov at CSKA; this was a debut goal following his summer move from Lokomotiv to Ak Bars. CSKA’s problems increased soon afterwards when Loktionov sat for another minor but this time the home PK did its job despite Da Costa’s best efforts.
The third period saw CSKA regain the lead early on when Slepyshev’s speculative shot from the blue line looped up off Kirill Lyamin’s stick and deceived Reideborn. The Moscow forward had a great chance to increase the lead shortly afterwards. Clean through on goal, he was brought down from behind by Albert Yarullin, but his subsequent penalty shot bounced off the outside of the post to safety.
Reprieved, Ak Bars recovered. Dawes got his first point for his new team, going behind the net to set up Azevedo in the circle for the tying goal. Reideborn had one more big save to make to force the extras, but late in the third CSKA took another penalty, giving Ak Bars a golden chance to wrap it up in overtime.
And the visitor took it, although it wasn’t quite as straightforward as all that. Da Costa followed Artyom Blazhievsky to the sidelines before Voronkov broke free to settle the game in Ak Bars’ favor. That delighted the vocal group of Ak Bars fans in the arena, while CSKA was left to contemplate defeat in the Opening Cup for the second year in a row.