In their O2 Debut, HC LEV Praha fell to SKA St. Petersburg. The visitors from Russia led for most of the match, scored the game-winning goal with under three minutes to go, and spoiled the debuts of Zdeno Chara, Martin Škoula, and Jakub Krejcik.
It was a taste of big league hockey for the 12,787 who made the trip to the O2 Arena on Saturday night. Unfortunately, the home side fell behind early, fell behind often, and despite battling back to twice tie the game, a late goal by the scorching young gun Vladimir Tarasenko sunk the Lions with less than three minutes remaining on the clock.
Coincidently, St. Petersburg opened the scoring less than three minutes into the match. Skating into the attacking zone on a 2-on-1, Anton Burdasov put a shot through the glove of Tomáš Pöpperle for the 1-0 lead. It is possible that Pöpperle was cheating a little bit and considering the pass, because the goal was a soft one and well within his ability to stop.
The Russian squad would double their lead before the period was over. With Jakub Voráček sitting two minutes for holding, Viktor Tikhonov picked up puck at the Lion’s blueline, entered the zone, and fired home a blistering wrist shot for the powerplay marker.
Canadian defenceman Kevin Dallman picked up an assist on the play, his 11th point in 11 matches, to extended his scoring lead among KHL defenceman.
Prague would fight back though and quickly tie the game early in the second period.
First, Michael Řepík entered the attacking zone alone and showed great patience to wait for, find, and feed a streaking Marcel Hossa. Hossa caught SKA keeper Sergei Bobrovsky napping and peeled around the net to tuck in a beauty wraparound goal and cut the deficit to one.
Only 74 seconds later, Ondřej Němec tied the game and brought the fans back to life. In a play that would make Don Cherry’s head explode, St. Petersburg defenceman Maxim Chudinov attempted to block Němec’s shot with his stick. As a result, an innocent-looking wrister from the left circle careened off Chudinov’s stick and into the top corner of the net.
Hard work and a lucky bounce had evened the score and brought the crowd back into the game. Unfortunately, this euphoria would be short lived, as St. Petersburg regained the lead before the period was over.
Fedor Federov received a pass from behind the net and one-timed it home to put his club up 3-2. Federov took advantage of some defensive-zone confusion on the part of the Lions, and gained position on his defender Juraj Mikuš to score the goal.
Prague came out in the third period and played a simpler brand of hockey. They starting dumping and chasing, fighting hard for pucks in the corners, and out-working their opponents to win simple battles. Sure enough, this cliché-ridden strategy paid off. With seven minutes left on the clock, the Lions tied the game.
This time it was Jakub Klepiš. Petr Vrana skated the puck around the net and fed a pass to Klepiš. The puck went tape-to-net, as Klepiš one-timed a shot past Bobrovsky, who had no chance on the play.
The goal ignited the fans, who began to chant, “Ještě jeden!” (One more!) and “My chceme gól!” (We want a goal!). They almost got their wish too, as Marcel Hossa had an opportunity in the slot to score the go-ahead goal, only to be denied by Bobrovsky.
The game appeared to be headed into overtime. However, Vladimir Tarasenko had a different idea. With 2:25 left on the clock, the St. Louis Blues prospect looped his way behind the Prague net, skated to the face-off dot, spun, fired, and somehow squeezed the puck through traffic and into the net. It was the Russian youngster’s fifth goal in four games, and couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Lions.
Prague pelted the net with shots as time expired, including sustained pressure in a 6 on 4 situation in the final moments of the game, but it was to no avail.
The loss was a particularly difficult one for the Lions, as they give up three regulation win points to a division rival who is in hot pursuit. St. Petersburg is now a single point back of Prague, with two games in hand. The losses have been pilling up lately for the Lions, now winless in 3 of their last 4 matches.
In addition, since recording his fourth shutout of the season, Tomáš Pöpperle has been mediocre between the pipes. His GAA in those four games has been 4.50, to go along with a paltry save percentage of 0.865. The Czech keeper hasn’t been given a night off since the season began, appearing in all 13 Lions matches – the only goalie in the league to do so. However, it appears unlikely that he will get a break anytime soon. Drew MacIntyre is still out with an injury he sustained in the pre-season, while current backup Ondrej Kocian has yet to appear in a KHL match. If the Lions are to turn it around, Pöpperle must re-discover the fine form he was playing with at the outset of the season.
Despite all the hype surrounding Zdeno Chara’s debut, it was a relatively silent night for the Slovakian giant. Chara was held off the score sheet, but recorded three shots on goal and finished the game with an Even rating. His ice time (19:27) was more than 5 minutes less than his previous year’s average with Boston, likely due to the fact that it was his first professional match of the season, and an adjustment period is required when joining a new team and playing within a new system. He will have a few more days to acclimatize himself before the Lion’s next game against Dynamo Moscow on Tuesday evening.