September 18, 2012
HC LEV PRAHA woke up this morning to find themselves atop the KHL standings. Quite a feat for a team that wasn’t expected to make much noise in their inaugural season. With only one loss in their first six games, the Lions are playing solid, defensive hockey. However, they owe much of their success to the outstanding goaltending of Tomáš Pöpperle, who collected his third shutout in four games with a 4-0 victory over Dinamo Minsk.
With news this week that Jaromír Jágr will return to the Czech Extraliga to play for his hometown club HC Kladno, it is easy for Czech hockey fans to overlook the surprising start from the Lions. However, Pöpperle is playing so well that he’s even beginning to draw attention away from the almighty Jarda.
The Czech keeper was named KHL goaltender of the week Monday afternoon, and followed up the honour by notching his league-leading third shutout of the season. Through six games, he currently sits with an inhuman goals against average of 0.99, also a league best, and a stunning 0.959 save percentage.
In fact, since his loss to Spartak Moscow – his only loss of the season – Pöpperle has stopped 98 of his last 100 shots.
In spite of the quick start, it’s still a little too early to plan the parade. After all, the Czech club hasn’t exactly been thrashing through the strongest teams in the KHL. Before their impressive victory over Minsk last night, Lion wins have come at the expense of clubs like Dinamo Riga, Donbass Donetsk, Vityaz Chekhov, and Severstal Cherepovets – all of whom currently sit outside the playoff picture.
Still, as the old adage goes, a win is a win. This will be especially true come February, if the team finds itself battling for playoff position. Any points – especially the three that come from a regulation win – will be helpful come crunch time. Presently, the Lions hold a 4 point advantage over Spartak Moscow for the division lead.
Undoubtedly, the Lions will wish to continue their penchant for knocking off teams with weaker records during their upcoming three-game homestand against a trio of Eastern Conference clubs.
Beginning on Thursday, they will face Avangard Omsk (17th overall), HC Barys Astana (23rd overall) and Yugra Khanty-Mansiysk, who is dead last to start the season.
These three games could see the Lions open up a substantial lead, not only on their division rivals, but atop the Western Conference standings.
The real test for Pöpperle and his teammates could come following the homestand, especially if the NHL lockout continues. This is because they will begin to face some all-world heavy hitters.
Once their hosting duties are over, the Lions will venture back into Russia to face Metallurg Magnitogorsk. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because they’re the club that just recently signed reigning NHL MVP Evgeni Malkin, as well as NHLers Nikolai Kulemin and Sergei Gonchar.
Following this, over a one-week span, Prague will face off against three of the league’s perennial powerhouses. The first match, on the 6th of October, will be at home against SKA St. Petersburg and their newly acquired sniper Ilya Kovalchuk. Kovalchuck is a former Rocket Richard Trophy winner and a Stanley Cup finalist in 2012.
Three days later the Lions will host defending Gagarin Cup Champions Dynamo Moscow. Dynamo is also the former home of Alexander Ovechkin who, as of today, has yet to sign with a KHL club, but has expressed his intention to do so.
Finally, on October 13th the Lions will square off against AK Bars Kazan.
These will be some of the toughest matches of the season for the seemingly scorching squad.
Though, if the rumour mill is to be believed, Prague could also get some offensive support stemming from the lockout, in the form of Czech NHLers Jiří Hudler and Jakub Voráček.
Time will tell if the stellar play of the boys from Prague will carry over into October, but one thing’s for sure – the upcoming weeks will yield some world class hockey in the Czech capital.