THE BATTLE OF CHINA I
By Kerry Gwydir
It wasn't exactly Islanders-Rangers or the heated regional rivalry of the Ottawa Senators-Toronto Maple Leafs.
But the quarterfinals matchup at the Bell Capital Cup between the Harbin Red Stars and QiQiHar Snow Leopards proportionately displayed the energy on the ice any of those games habitually display minus the odd fisticuffs. In fact, even the traditional pre-game puck drop was hotly contested, with both team captains not relenting to allow the other to cleanly win the faceoff. In the end, QiQiHar used a pair of first period goals and some solid defense to shutout Harbin, 3-0, on Sunday afternoon.
Both teams came out to a full house, ok, that's about 100, at the Sensplex arena in Kanata, Ont., for the game. Thanks to members of the Harbin hosting family delegation, they arranged for two members of the Canadian Mounted Police to perform a bagpipes ceremony for the teams to enter the ice. As the players lined up along their respective bluelines, the Chinese national anthem was played. The elaborate pregame festivities concluded with the Canadian national anthem being sung by the Canadian Mounted Police.
Harbin came out flying to start the match, but it was the Snow Leopards that found the scoreboard first. Following two saves in tight by QiQiHar goaltender Liang Guizi off of Harbin sniper Ji Peng, a turnover in the neutral zone wound up on the stick of QiQiHar leading scorer Zhang Cheng, who has been one of the entire tournaments leading scorers. As he managed to dance around Harbin defenseman Liu Yanlei, Cheng walked in and buried a wrister past Harbin netminder Xia Shengrong who was named Harbin's player of the game -- just a minute in.
The Red Stars had an opportunity to tie the game a minute later as they went on the powerplay, but the QiQiHar penalty killers extinguished the opportunity and had some luck along the way. As the penalty was ending, Harbin appeared to have a 2-on-0 break as they entered the QiQiHar zone. But, a close offsides call by the linesman negated what would have been a clear break-in by Zhang Zesen.
As the period wound down, the last thing Harbin wanted to see was Cheng, the QiQiHar captain, with the puck on his stick and a clear lane to the Red Stars' net. Yet, that happened in the final seconds of the opening period and the QiQiHar captain buried his second of the contest just prior to the first period ending. It was Cheng's 10th goal of the tournament, which led his team along with 11 points in five contests.
If the intensity level wasn't high enough for these two teams there was plenty of body contact for an atom level game and players diving headlong to block shots, a big hit on the QiQiHar captain early in the second (which would have touched off a pretty heated exchange if it were an Isles-Rangers game) put the Snow Leopards on the powerplay three minutes in. On the play, Zheng had a one-on-one over the Harbin blueline, only to have his knees taken out when Harbin defenseman Liu Yanlei low-bridged the QiQiHar center thus preventing a breakaway for the dangerous sniper.
On the ensuing powerplay, QiQiHar pressed several times to add a third tally. Instead, the brilliance of goaltender Xia Shengrong kept the Snow Leopards off the board with two splendid diving stops in front during scrambles caused by Chang.
The second powerplay of the afternoon tilt came midway through the second when QiQiHar defenseman Zhang Canji floored Harbin forward Liu Yanlei. Instead, QiQiHar gave themselves some insurance when blueliner Zhang Zhihao walked around the Harbin defense and beat the Red Stars' netminder on a rebound chance after being stopped on a break-in. The tally was Zhihao's sixth of the tournament, which placed him second on his team in that category.
Displaying a stifling defensive mode in the third, QiQiHar clamped down and played keep-away as their top defense pairing of Zhang Cheng and Zhang Zhihao gave the Harbin forwards little room to maneuver in the offensive end of the ice. When Harbin did manage to find some offensive daylight, as they did five minutes in when Red Stars' star defenseman Zhu Ziyang broke in for a backhander that Guizi stopped with his paddle. QiQiHar's defensive prowess shutdown the lethal combination of Zhu Ziang, who had six goals in four games coming into the contest and was named one of the stars of the tournament's All-Star Game.
QiQiHar advances to the tournament semifinal on Sunday evening at the Sensplex while Harbin was eliminated from 1st place competition. Both teams will have another shot at each other this week when they continue their North American tour on Long Island.
* Chris Stevenson's column, "Milbury Puts Hockey on Map in China" from the Dec. 28 edition of the Ottawa Sun