It’s a good thing I’m a Toronto Maple Leafs fan. It’s helpful in times like these. After starting the season strong and hinting at an enjoyable run in their KHL debut, the Prague Lions are now locked in a brutal tailspin. As a Toronto fan, I know this story all too well. I know how to prepare for this, I know how to cope with it. While it’s not too late to turn it around and salvage the year, some holes are just too deep. The Lion’s are flirting with the point of no return, and it may soon be time to start looking at a girlfriend team for the month of November.
Following two close losses to St. Petersburg and Dynamo Moscow in front of massive crowds at the O2 Arena in Prague, the Lions embarked on a 4-game road trip through Russia, hoping to get back into the win column. Unfortunately, it’s four games later and the boys from Bohemia are still searching for that elusive W…
They began with a stop in Kazan to take on AK Bars, the club that won back-to-back Gagarin Cups in 2009 and 2010. It was a game full of goals that just barely trickled in and culminated in a heartbreaking finish for the Lions.
It wasn’t all bad news though. To open the scoring, Zdeno Chara potted his first as a Lion, swooping in behind the net and poking in a puck that had been wedged between the goaltender Konstantin Barulin’s skate and the post.
Better still, Prague accomplished something that they hadn’t been able to do in their two previous matches – they tied the game late in the third period. Jakob Klepiš took a pass from Ondřej Němec down low, made a tight turn to take it to the side of the goal and tossed the puck on net. It somehow found a hole between Barulin’s blocker and the post for Klepiš’ seventh as a Lion.
But, just when it seemed like the Lions had forced overtime and salvaged at least a single point, AK Bars netted the go-ahead goal with 18 seconds left on the game clock. Defencemen Konstantin Korneyev eluded his man, stepped in from the point, and fired off a shot that had enough mustard on it to squeak between Pöpperle’s arm and pad. AK Bars added an empty netter before time expired to take the 4-2 victory.
Two nights later, the Lions took on Nail Yakupov and his hometown club, Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk. Although the game ended in a shootout loss, there was again some good news for Lions fans. After 15 straight games, goaltender Tomáš Pöpperle was finally given the night off. PEI’s own Drew MacIntyre returned from injury for his first start of the season and squared off against fellow-Canadian Matt Dalton at the other end of the ice.
Yakupov and Prague captain Jiri Novotný traded powerplay markers in the second period, before Igor Polygalov put the home side up a goal just before the intermission. For the second straight game, Prague was able to tie the game in the third period, courtesy of a another powerplay goal, this time off the stick of Marcel Hossa.
Overtime solved nothing, and in the shootout Neftekhimik was successful on all three of their attempts (only Erik Christensen could responds for Prague), to take the 3-2 shootout win. The Lions salvaged a point, but put themselves in a vulnerable position in the standings – their conference rivals were winning and beginning to overtake the once-proud pride.
MacIntrye had an adequate debut game, stopping 28 of 30 shots, though a save in the shootout could have gone a long way towards potentially stealing a second point.
Once more, Prague was given a night off before meeting up with 2011 KHL Champions Salavat Yulaev in Ufa. Ufa is a city that, while relatively unknown now, will be on the radar of most Canadians come December, as it’s the host of the 2013 World Junior Hockey Championships.
Things started well for the Lions, as they struck first with an early goal by Juraj Mikuš. That was the high point of this match for the visitors. Before the horn rang for the first intermission, Salavat Yulaev scored three goals in a span of five minutes. By the time the first break beers were distributed, Ufa fans were resting comfortably.
Prague’s leading scorer Jakub Klepiš cut the lead to one in the second period, scoring his eighth of the season, but Ufa’s Alexander Svitov reclaimed the two-goal cushion with a powerplay marker early in the third and the home side held strong to collect a 4-2 victory.
In his second straight start, Drew MacIntyre didn’t fare quite as well as he had in his debut, allowing 4 goals on 25 shots. Pöpperle was returned to the crease for the final match of the road trip, Friday night in Moscow.
The final stop was the first game of a home-and-home against the Red Army, CSKA Moscow. The club boasts some marquee names, including two-time scoring champion Alexander Radulov, Toronto’s Mikhail Grabovski, and the magic hands of Detroit’s Pavel Datsyuk.
The big guns from Moscow did not disappoint. Radulov and Grabo both picked up 2 assists, allowing the former to enter the weekend as the league’s leading scorer, though the highlight of the night went to Pavel Datsyuk, who showed the world what it’s missing during the lockout by sending both Nathan Oystrick and Tomas Popperle’s jock straps into the rafters. Moscow took the game 3-0, shutting out a Prague offense that is struggling to score.
Although it was yet another loss, the game was actually scoreless until late in the second period, when Moscow struck on the powerplay, just as the period was set to expire. The insurance goals were added early in the third, two minutes apart.
The win was CSKA’s third in four games. The loss extended the Lion losing streak to six games. Prague has now dropped nine of ten (ouch) and has only one victory in the month of October.
It’s difficult to pinpoint the problem for Prague. Offense is the obvious answer, as well as their time spent shorthanded. Only Spartak Moscow has been shorthanded more times than Prague. This isn’t always a problem for teams, but when your penalty kill is in the bottom third of the league, as Prague’s is, it can be troublesome. The Lions are also tied for the fourth-most powerplay goals against in the KHL. The Prague penalty-kill gave up a goal in every one of the four road losses, including the game winning goal on Friday night in Moscow.
Since the loss of Jakub Voráček, who was injured in a loss to St. Petersburg on October 6th and will be out for at least a month, Prague’s already-suspect offense has hit a wall. Voráček was gelling nicely with his linemates Erik Christensen and Jiri Novotný, but since his injury the team hasn’t been able to find a way replace his contributions.
Finally, while this is more opinion than statistic, the ways in which Prague has been losing certainly appear to be taking a toll on the team. Giving up the winning goal with eighteen seconds on the clock is backbreaking for any team’s moral, especially one mired in a losing steak. As well, there have been five-minute spans where the entire team just shuts down, and their opponents are capitalizing, building up insurmountable leads during these windows. It is a cliché, but with such a struggling offense, the Lions really do need to play the entire sixty minutes, not fifty-five, not fifty-nine – but the full sixty. It doesn’t appear that they’re a strong enough club to get away with anything less.
The dejected looks on the faces of the players, the hanging heads, the lack of conversation after a goal – it is a stark contrast to teams like St. Petersburg that truly believe they can score their way out of any difficulty. Some of the Lions look like they believe the game is lost after going down a goal. This is a hard attitude to turn around and it gets stronger with every loss, especially in a run like this.
Prague will have only one game on tap next week, the back end of their home-and-home with CSKA Moscow. It is also the final match at O2 Arena – a rink where they are still winless – until the new year.
It’s not time to throw on the paper bags just yet…but it could be close.