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CWHL 2017-18 Season Recap: Kunlun Red Star

The expansion team that made the Clarkson Cup Final in its first season in the CWHL.

Kunlun Red Star lining up for the playing of national anthems before a game against the Vanke Rays.
Al Saniuk

Season Synopsis

Record: 21-6-0-1

Playoffs: Lost in overtime in the Clarkson Cup Final to Markham Thunder.

What an interesting season Kunlun had.

The first of two eventual expansion teams in China, the Red Star had a mix of international players and Chinese national team players. They made headlines when they burst onto the scene in the summer, most notably for the way they paid international superstars to be “athlete-ambassadors,” who were paid exorbitant amounts of money to not only play, but also coach and grow the game of ice hockey in China.

Kelli Stack and Zoe Hickel were two the big names that Kunlun paid to be athlete ambassadors in the 2017-18 CWHL season.
Al Saniuk

But it quickly became apparent that Kunlun was a force to be reckoned with, in part because of those international stars. Kelli Stack led the league in points and also took home the league MVP award (Jamie Lee Rattray won the Jayna Hefford trophy, given to the MVP as voted by the players). Noora Räty won Goaltender of the Year. Zoe Hickel finished top five in the league in scoring, and Kunlun also got a boost when Alex Carpenter joined the team late after getting cut by Team USA.

Relying heavily on two scoring lines made up of international players and a select few Chinese national players, Kunlun cruised through the regular season. They managed to outlast Calgary in a triple-overtime marathon to advance to the Clarkson Cup Final in their first season before ultimately falling to Markham, also in overtime.

What Went Wrong

Really, not much went wrong for Kunlun — in fact, one could argue that in order for them to make the final, everything would have to go right, and it did.

Ultimately, Red Star’s biggest weakness was their depth, something head coach Digit Murphy acknowledged. Though the Chinese national players improved dramatically from the beginning of the season, it was clear that the international players were getting the majority of the ice time. Couple that with an incredible unforgiving schedule with an absurd amount of travel across the world and this team was bound to run out of gas eventually.

Digit Murphy being vocal behind Kunlun’s bench in a game against the Boston Blades.
Al Saniuk

Game of the Year

On our Top Shelf preview podcast, Michelle Jay and I came to the conclusion that if Kunlun wanted to make it to the Clarkson Cup, they would need to beat Calgary in two games. The longer they played, we decided, the more of an advantage the Inferno would have; their depth would out-skate the exhausted Red Star starters.

Wow, were we wrong.

The Red Star’s game of the year was a 1-0 triple-overtime stunner that clinched their spot in the Clarkson Cup Final. A true goaltender’s duel, it was Delayne Brian and Noora Räty’s biggest games all season. Brian stopped an incredible 43 shots while Räty made 66 stops — 17 OF THOSE WERE IN THE THIRD PERIOD ALONE.

It seemed almost poetic that Alex Carpenter, a late addition to the team and someone who had been relatively quiet after getting cut from Team USA, got the game-winner. The goal was set up by- who else? Hickel and Stack.

It made her breakaway miss in overtime in the Clarkson Cup hurt that much more NOPE WE AREN’T TALKING ABOUT THAT

Team MVP(s) - Stack and Räty

Ok, I can’t pick one, I physically am incapable of picking just one player. Räty and Stack both deserve this because without either of them, this team literally does not make the Clarkson Cup Final. Fight me.

Kelli Stack had an unbelievable MVP season for Kunlun Red Star in her return to the CWHL this year.
Al Saniuk

For KRS to make the Final at all, they needed out-of-this-world goaltending and a truly game changing goal scorer. Räty and Stack did that and more. Räty proved that she’s still one of the world’s most elite goalies (THE most elite?); she finished the season with a .944 save percentage and a 1.60 goals against average. Stack took any frustration she had at not making the U.S. centralization squad and channeled it into a legendary season, racking up 49 points in 28 games.

They are two of the very best, and they shone this season.

Standout Rookie

This one is tricky because Kunlun was a team filled with rookies, but Baiwei Yu certainly deserves some recognition. She was one of the team’s Chinese players who saw regular ice time, and she’s been an anchor for China’s national team for years. Yu was first named captain in 2011 and has worn the “C” on and off ever since then.

She didn’t put up a ton of points — collecting three during the regular season — but not many Chinese national players found the scoreboard. Yu’s talent lies in her ability to provide reliable defense when she’s on the ice and play big minutes. She certainly stood out this year.

Kunlun turned a lot of heads this season, but much of that was due to their stellar international players, and whether or not they return next season remains to be seen. Stack and Räty weren’t sure if they were coming back, and if Murphy isn’t back as the head coach next season, we may see a vastly different Red Star team.