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Vaxjo Lakers - Sparta Prague

Red-hot Lakers host lukewarm Sparta in 1st leg

Vaxjo Lakers vs. Sparta Prague

Vida Arena, 20:00 CET

Referees: Gordon Schukies, Daniel Piechaczek (GER)

The Semi-Final between Sparta Prague and the Vaxjo Lakers matches one of Europe's most storied and famous hockey clubs against a relative newcomer. 

Sparta was established in 1903 and since the formation of the Czechoslovakian national league in 1937, the hockey team has played in the top tier every season except one, winning six national titles. They've also been regular competitors in the European Cup and Spengler Cup, and were runners up in the European Hockey League and European Champions Cup respectively in 2000 and 2008. 

The Lakers, meanwhile, were formed in 1997 and have only played in Sweden's top league since 2011. They have, however, already managed to win an SHL title, doing so in 2014-15. This is the farthest they've ever gone in a European competition. These two teams met in the CHL group stage in 2014-15, with Sparta winning both games to capture top spot. Several players remain from those two encounters on each side.

Both of these teams seem to have gotten stronger as the competition has progressed, showing a mix of timely scoring and steady defence. The first game is in Vaxjo, where the Lakers have been perfect in the CHL so far. Keep in mind, however, that Sparta have not lost on the road yet in the CHL, including two wins in Sweden already.

The Lakers enter this game on a roll, having won eight straight SHL games. In the midst of that streak are also a win and a tie in the CHL Quarter-Finals against ZSC Lions Zurich, so they haven't lost in 10. Thanks to that, they have now moved up to second in the SHL standings.

After winning the CHL Quarter-Final, the rest of December was a bit turbulent for Sparta. Since their 4-1 win in the return leg on home ice 13 December, they have three wins and four losses in Extraliga play. They currently sit 5th in the 14-team circuit.

“Our group understands we're facing a very tough opponent but we're excited about the challenge and believe in our game,” said Lakers forward Liam Reddox. Last season Reddox led the Lakers with 7 points in six CHL games. This season, he only has a single assist in eight games, as the team has gotten offence from other sources. 

Sparta have one player in their roster who has played for the Lakers before, albeit briefly. Veteran winger Tomas Netik played 12 games for the Swedish club in 2011-12.

“I wasn't there for too long, but it I remember it well,” Netik said. “I'm looking forward to going back there. Vaxjo is a nice town. They have a beautiful arena, great fans, and in recent years have built a very good team that is near the top of the Swedish league and now in the Champions League. I expect a turbulent atmosphere and very tough game.”

If Sparta is to have success in Vaxjo, Netik's offence could be a factor. He led the CHL with 6 goals in the group stage, but hasn't played since in the European competition due to a shoulder injury. He is now fully recovered and ready to go.

“I don't know if we'll somehow fundamentally alter our game. It depends on the coach, but I think not,” Netik figures of the team's game plan. 

Click here for information on the series

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21

321

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9

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30

17

339

90

7

3

Team Comparison

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Vaxjo Lakers - Sparta Prague

Vaxjo Lakers - Sparta Prague

Sparta head home with one-goal lead over Lakers

by Luke Fisher, with contribution from Pontus Bjers

Sparta Prague couldn't have asked for a better opening period in Vaxjo, as they shocked the Lakers with two goals inside the opening 13 minutes. Just 1:16 was on the board when Martin Gernat batted a floating puck past Victor Andren to put Sparta a goal to the good. 

“We got a 2-on-1 and I was skating through the goalie for the rebound,” Gernat described. “The second rebound hit his pad and I just tried to hit the puck in the air. It went in and it was quite a lucky goal but it counts.”

The lead held for over 10 minutes as both teams traded chances, before the visitors then shocked their hosts by doubling their advantage – Slovak Andrej Kudrna popping up with the goal with 12:50 played.

“Lukas Cingel had the puck behind the net and he tried to pass it to me,” Kudrna described. “The puck somehow got to me and I just tried to shoot it and it went in. We got a little bit lucky. After that I think that we played very well defensively and our goalie had a very good game.”

“I think that we came out a little too thin,” Lakers coach Sam Hallam said about his team's start. “At the same time I think that we were a bit unlucky the first 10 minutes or so. The first puck bounces off two sticks in the air before it goes in but we could also have done a better job in front of our goal. On the second goal, it’s a bounce that surprises us completely.”

Sparta had chances in a middle period which saw the visitors fail to make the most of chances with an extra man. A double minor on Liam Reddox for a high stick at 30:33 gave the Czechs a four-minute power play but they were unable to take advantage – Petr Vrana hitting the crossbar one of the closest they came to extending their lead.

“I felt a little rusty in the beginning but after their two goals and got going. After that it felt better,” said Andren, who held the fort during that stretch, and stopped 23 of 25 shots overall. 

At the other end, Sparta were grateful to goal scorer Kudrna, who cleared the puck off the goal line. Both Erik Josefsson and Ville Leino came close for the home side as the period drew to a close, but Sparta held on to keep their lead at the 40-minute break.

Those missed chances for Sparta continued into the third period, with Vrana coming close at the 43- and 53-minute marks, respectively, as Andren refused to be beaten again. And the visitors were made to rue those opportunities late in the game as Vaxjo got thesemvles a lifeline ahead of the return leg. Josh Hennessy went round the back of the goal to then beat Tomas Popperle through the five-hole to half the deficit with 54:38 played – the only one of 23 shots to beat the Sparta keeper.

That's how it stayed until the final buzzer sounded – Sparta take a slender lead back to Prague with them, but probably think it should have been more. Vaxjo, meanwhile, will feel the momentum change after a late goal to get back into the series.

On Sparta's strategy at home next week, Gernat said, “We can’t get afraid to play the game. We have to play our game, skate with them and try to score as many goals as we can. We’ll see what happens there.”

“We didn’t play a very good game but it’s the best out of two games,” said Robert Rosen, Vaxjo's Top Scorer who was held off the score sheet this game. “We’re one goal down and half the game is still remaining you can say so there is still a lot of time left to turn this around.”

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Team Comparison

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Cramo Top Scorer

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