ST. PETERSBURG, Russia – KHL vs. NHL, SKA St. Petersburg vs. Carolina Hurricanes, East vs. West. Who is the best? "This shows that the KHL product is very good," said SKA coach Ivano Zanatta after the 5-3 win.
What conclusions can be drawn after SKA St. Petersburg's hard fought but well deserved victory? Well, that a very good, skilled and expensive KHL team that plays on home court and has been in training since mid-July is slightly better than a re-building NHL team whose training camp started on September 17.
So really, no big surprise there. Most observers actually predicted a more emphatic home win, primarily based on the KHL team’s superior preparation. But a win is a win and that was more important than anything else for the home boys.
St. Petersburg coach Ivano Zanatta explains:
“This meant a lot to the national hockey pride of Russians. The Olympics left a scar in the Russian hockey soul. What we did tonight was to start mending that scar a little bit,” said the Italo-Canadian who is entrusted with the monumental task of jelling this star ensemble into a cohesive group.
“I won’t overplay the win, but we are very happy. It was a good moment for us. And yes, personally, I feel a sense of satisfaction,” said Zanatta who was mobbed by fans outside of the arena and was left standing for a good while signing autographs. He didn't mind.
Zanatta agrees that this game contributed to a certain upgrade of the prestige of the upstart Russian league:
“No doubt, this is world class hockey. The KHL is a very good product. You can’t underrate this anymore.”
His counterpart in the other locker room was also basically happy with his team’s performance, but not with the way the opposition, according to Paul Maurice, took liberties with some of his star players.
“In the NHL when players have an issue they are allowed to solve it by themselves,” said the Hurricanes coach. “And then you continue to play. But this is not possible in international hockey, there is a different tradition.”
“This was the reason I pulled Eric Staal midway through the second period. As much as I wanted to win this game, it wasn’t worth taking a risk. I didn’t want my star player getting injured.”
Maurice instead found consolation in 18-year old Jeff Skinner. The rookie forward scored the goal that tied the game 3-3 in the second period and he played like a veteran. Very impressive.
“I don’t want to say too much about this kid… I mean he is so young… but he is so good,” said Maurice almost reluctantly. “He has great hands, plays through traffic, simply a great talent.”
For SKA’s Swede Tony Martensson this was a different exhibition game. “You knew already at the morning skate that this would not be a just another game. Our president Alexander Medvedev held a speech when he interrupted the practice and he told us that Russian hockey has waited twenty years for this game. And you also sensed it in the locker room before the game.”
“I don’t think that people outside Russia really realize how much this game meant to the country, the club and the league,” said the former NHLer, who also played for KHL club Ak Bars Kazan three years ago.”
“I don’t believe that you can judge the two leagues by this game alone, it’s simply not fair. But this on the other hand shows that the best KHL teams can compete with NHL clubs. And this league is improving all the time. The quality is better than what it was three years ago.”
Live game reporting:
Teams remain on the ice and are presented with gifts. The Carolina players look so-so enthused.
20 min: Crowd salutes their heroes with a standing ovation and shouting "Maladtsy" ("well done").
19 min: Jay Harrison (CAR) and Igor Golovkov (SKA) treat the crowd to skirmish at the end. Golovkov had no chance. Two punches and down. Why did he subject himself to this?
14 min: Not the smartest move by Joni Pitkänen - a major for spearing and PP opportunity gone. Now SKA has a 4 minute PP, chance to kill the game.
13 min: Sergei Gusev 2 for holding. Coach Maurice takes a time-out. His team needs a goal here, or else. Crowd boos time-out.
11 min: SKA in full control, crowd goes "Shaibu, Shaibu". Canes seem fatigued. Not much jump anymore.
GOAL: 6:36 -- 5-3: Again, a penalty costs the NHL team a goal. Erik Cole off for holding the stick and seven seconds later Maxim Sushinsky gets his second of the game after a sweet little pass from Yashin just at the doorstep. Difficult to see now how Carolina will get back into this.
4.40: Chance for Canes to get back -- Vishnevsky of for hooking.
GOAL: 1:47 -- 4-3: Early penalty to Tuomo Ruutu (1:14) and SKA capitalize pretty much immediately. Classic PP goal; Czech Peter Cajanek behind the goal, feeds Maxim Sushinsky who one-times it past Justin Peters - no chance.
By the way; game is officiated by NHL referee Stephane Auger and KHL/IIHF ref Vyacheslav Bulanov. Also the linesmen are taken from each league.
Just like in the past Victoria Cups the game is officiated according to a blended IIHF - NHL rulebook. The only major adjustment for the NHL club is that there is no touch-icing.
Second period over and this one was far better than the first. Better speed, more action in front of the nets and teams are showing emotions. Should be a dandy third period.
GOAL: 14:52 -- 3-3: Nice PP goal by Carolina. Great pass by Joni Pitkänen from the point and 18-year-old Jeff Skinner dekes Nabokov half way to Yaroslavl. Also Ruutu earned an assist.
11 min. Canes taking too many penalties now. Bobby Sanguinetti off for roughing, but PK does good job.
GOAL: 6:53 -- 3-2: Only seconds after Cam Ward is replaced by Justin Peters in the Carolina net, Alexei Yashin gives SKA the lead again. Jamie McBain's turnover in his own zone was a costly error. Yashin went to his backhand and put it up high.
Wow! This is getting serious. Two consecutive fights and the crowd loves it. Tim Gleason (CAR) and Alexei Petrov (SKA) get game misconducts.
GOAL: 3:22 -- 2-2: Canes hardly left the SKA zone after the early goal and Patrick Dwyer scores the equalizer, also on a rebound, assisted by Brett Carson. 12,000 fans are absolutely quiet. This is a shocker for SKA. But it's a fair score, this never looked like a 2-0 game after the first period.
GOAL: 1:50 -- 2-1: Tuomo Ruutu gets Carolina on the board, scores on a rebound. Jussi Jokinen assisted on the all-Finnish goal.
GOAL: 19:54 -- 2-0: 15 seconds after Joni Pitkänen's minor, Maxim Rybin scores on PP. Afinogenov got the helper. This could prove to be a costly penalty. The Canes looked rather comfortable trailing just by one.
17 min: Despite the lead, the game is not going the way SKA wanted. The Canes block the lanes well, the Russians can't use their speed and the crowd is awfully quiet.
12 min: Tentative play, not much action in front of the nets. Carolina is probably happy to have weathered the early storm from a team that has been on ice for more than two months. Not much hitting either.
10 min: Not much happened on the Canes PP, maybe too early in the season. Teams skate four on four as Gusev and Ruutu serve minors.
First Carolina PP, Afinogenov out for cross-checking Staal.
Immediately after the goal Zac Dalpe has a great chance but Nabokov makes the save.
GOAL: 1:51 -- 1-0: SKA's 3rd line strikes early. Konstantin Panov scores off a weird bounce, puck went between Ward's legs. Assist goes to Gleb Klimenko.
Starting goaltenders, SKA: Yevgeni Nabokov. Carolina: Cam Ward. The barn is packed, not a single empty seat. This means 12.320.
Teams are being introduced player by player. Big hand for Eric Staal. But the roof is almost off as the home team is introduced. Biggest cheer for home-town boy Maxim Sushinsky.
WARM-UP: The arena is almost full as the teams come out for the warm-up. Surprising scratch with SKA; Swede Mattias Weinhandl is not playing. He is the team's best scorer so far (5G + 8A in 11 games) and second in KHL scoring behind only Alexander Radulov.
So fellow-Swede Tony Martensson is playing on the second line with Anton But and Maxim Afinogenov. The first has Czech Petr Cajanek centering Alexei Yashin and Maxim Sushinsky.
We see a spectacular light-show at the Ice Palace. The KHL and SKA St. Petersburg are really committed to putting on a big show here.
17.30 (local time): A press-conference was held 2 hours before the game with KHL President Alexander Medvedev, KHL Chairman Vyacheslav Fetisov and Senior Vice-President of NHL International Ken Yaffe. The trio announced that the two leagues have signed an agreement of mutual respect of contracts.
This means that there should be no more cases of players with valid contracts jumping leagues.
PRE-GAME: This is only the second time that an NHL-team will face a KHL-club. In the inaugural Victoria Cup on October 1, 2008, the New York Rangers rallied from a 3-0 deficit to defeat European club champion Metallurg Magnitogorsk, 4-3, with Ryan Callahan netting the winner with 20 seconds remaining. The game was played in Bern, Switzerland.
++ This will be the 110th meeting between an NHL club and a club team from the Soviet Union/Russia with the latter leading the all-time standings with 58 wins, 41 losses with 10 games ending with ties. Goals: 409-359 in favour of Soviet/Russian clubs. The first ever club game between the rivals was on December 28, 1975 when CSKA Moscow defeated the New York Rangers 7-3 at Madison Square Garden.
++ It’s billed as an exhibition game, but at least the KHL team will not treat it as one. During the morning skate, Alex Medvedev – the SKA St. Petersburg president and GAZPROM Vice-President – asked coach Ivano Zanatta to interrupt the practice so Mr. Medvedev could give an inspirational speech to the team. How often does that happen prior to an exhibition game?