In a game that was closer than the score would indicate, HC LEV Praha fell 5-2 to Traktor Chelyabinsk on Saturday afternoon. This was the first time all season that Prague has lost two games in a row, and it came at the hands of a red-hot Traktor squad that are now winners of four straight.
It was a statement game for the Lions, who had yet to be defeated in consecutive games this year. They entered this match reeling from a nasty 6-1 loss to Metallurg Magnitogorsk on Thursday evening, in which they gave up four powerplay goals.
The two teams looked evenly matched in the first period and seemed to be exchanging goals at will. Prague was the first to score, when Michal Řepík fired a one-timer past Traktor goalie Michael Garnett for his first of the season.
Five minutes later the home side would respond. Konstantin Panov rushed down the left side of the ice and beat Tomáš Pöpperle low blocker side on a shot that the Czech keeper probably would’ve liked to have back.
The Lions, determined to play a stronger game than they had on Thursday, again took the lead. Nathan Oystrick fired a laser pass across the crease to fellow Canadian Erik Christensen, who found the twine to regain the lead. It was Christensen’s 4th goal in his last three games.
However, this lead would once again be short-lived, as an errant clearing attempt by goaltender Pöpperle put the puck right on the tape of Traktor’s Andrei Kostitsyn. The former Nashville Predator netted his third of the year to tie the game at two apiece.
Though Pöpperle looked extremely shaky in the first period, his nerves calmed down in the second, and he’s sole reason his team remained in the game as long as they did.
Prague looked a lot stronger in the second period, firing 14 shots at the Traktor net and creating quality scoring chances. Pöpperle found his game and made a number of fantastic saves, first stopping Vladimir Antipov on a penalty shot, then robbing Stanislav Chistov on a point-blank opportunity in front of the net, and denying Jan Bulis on a breakaway.
It seemed destined that Prague would respond to their keeper’s big play by rewarding him with a goal. This was especially true at the end of the period, when they were awarded a two-man advantage for a minute and a half.
With Alexander Suglobov and Dimitri Riabykin both in the penalty box, the Lions cycled the puck well and peppered the net with shots, only to be stopped each time by Michael Garnett and a Traktor penalty kill which has only been beaten once all year.
As the first penalty expired, Suglobov stepped out of the box, knocked down Lion defenceman Ondřej Němec in the corner, and fed a pass to a streaking Vladimir Antipov in front. The Traktor captain made no mistake, putting the puck past Pöpperle with 48 seconds left in the period for the backbreaking, shorthanded, game winning goal.
It was Traktor’s league-leading fourth shorthanded goal of the season.
The third period didn’t fare much better for the boys from Bohemia. Maxim Yakutsenya snuck in behind the Prague defence and received a pass from his own blueline that sprung him on a breakaway. Reading Pöpperle’s poke-check perfectly, Yakutsenya chipped the puck over the sprawling keeper to give his team the 4-2 lead, effectively ending the Lion’s evening.
Before the final horn had sounded, Jan Bulis would score on a two man advantage – his 5th powerplay goal of the season, now tied for tops in the KHL.
It was a difficult loss for the Lions, who have dropped three of their last four games, and are barely clinging to the top of the Western Conference standings. They share the division lead with Atlant, with both Locomotiv and CSKA trailing by only 1 point.
On the other hand, Traktor have won their last four matches and continue to climb their way up the Eastern Conference standings. As well, their goaltender Michael Garnett played a masterful game, stopping 40 of 42 shots – many of them quality chances – and with his 7th win has leapfrogged Tomas Pöpperle for the league-lead in that category.
Up next for the Lions is Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg, who have only two wins on the season. Prague will attempt to salvage some points from this three game road trip, something they have failed to do thus far, before heading home to face powerhouses SKA St. Petersburg and Dynamo Moscow at the O2 Arena in Prague.