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Sparta head home with one-goal lead over Lakers

Sparta celebrate the opening goal less than two minutes in.
© Vaxjo Lakers/CHL via Getty Images

A tight game in Vaxjo saw Sparta just edge the Lakers ahead of next week's return match in the Czech capital. Read more in Gamecentre

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.”