Red-hot Lakers host lukewarm Sparta in 1st leg
The Vaxjo Lakers are on a tear as they host Sparta Prague in the first game of their CHL Semi-Final.
Vaxjo Lakers vs. Sparta Prague
Vida Arena, 20:00 CET
Referees: Gordon Schukies, Daniel Piechaczek (GER)
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.