Alongside Jokerit Helsinki, HC Sochi was another expansion team that joined the Kontinental Hockey League this season. The team from the 2014 Olympic Village was spending the first third of the season in the cellar of the standings, but some 20 games into the season, with the addition of veteran NHL defenseman Ryan Whitney helping, the Leopards got the ball rolling and started moving ahead.
Medveščak and Sochi played their first game early December in Sochi’s Bolshoy Arena, where the Leopards blew out the Bears 6:2. On Saturday night, though, things were rather evened out.
Sochi got on the board first with a goal in the second half of the first period, but the Bears took no time for grief and answered 46 seconds later with a breakaway beauty by Edwin Hedberg after a great feed from defenseman Mark Flood.
“Yeah, it was nice“ said Hedberg. “I haven’t done so much in the last four games, so it was nice to bounce back with a nice goal. It was a pretty nice pass from Flood“
“We’ve worked on that play a lot, so it’s nice to see it pay off. That’s a play that we work on. Flood made a great pass and Eddy made no mistake. With his speed, that’s a factor there“ said coach Doug Shedden
“I wasn’t happy with the way we started“ said Shedden. “We basically gave the guys a maintenance day on Friday, we did a pregame skate today – it was optional, we did that thinking we’d be coming out guns blazing. I wasn’t very happy with the way we came out. Our puck management in the first period wasn’t very good, too many turnovers, but we got stronger as the game went on – in the third period we dominated“
After 60 minutes, the score was tied at 2:2 and went into the extra frame, which was Medveščak’s second consecutive OT period after Dynamo Moscow on Thursday. The nearly sold out Dom sportova saw the game as done after Sochi rang one off the post in overtime, but as the play went on, the fans took a breath of relief and momentum swung for Medveščak after Sochi’s missed opportunity.
“It happens“ said Sochi’s head coach, Vyacheslav Butsayev. “We got to play 60 minutes, and if got extra time, we got to play extra time. It’s luck or bad luck, that’s all about it“
“I don’t know..“ said Shedden. “Like he (Butsayev) said, your make your luck some times, and you get bad breaks another time. We’ve had some opportunities, too, that we’ve missed. Thank God the referees showed up on our side a little bit in the third period where they called off a goal and we got a couple powerplays, because I certainly wasn’t happy at the end of two periods with the penalties we had taken.. A couple weak tripping calls, the goalie interference on Thomas which they tied the game on that I wasn’t too happy about“
“I think we played a pretty solid game through the whole 60 minutes, but we took too many penalties and they got a little bit of an advantage there and a goal, a really nice goal“ said Hedberg. “That was the downside“
With seconds to go in overtime, almost everyone was preparing for the shootout, except for Mark Popovic, who had one more left in the tank. With 1.5 seconds to go, he sent one past Andrei Gavrilov to give Medveščak the win in OT and earn the additional point.
“Yeah, it’s fun, that’s why we play, to win games like that“ said Popovic. “Hopefully it keeps us going here and gives us a chance for playoffs. It was fun for me. I don’t know if I ever scored an overtime goal. I had one taken away last season, but that was fun tonight“
“Yeah, uf, that was a nice goal by Pops, that was a highlight for sure“ said Hedberg. “It was fun to see it“
“Is that what it was left? I haven’t had a chance to look.. One point five?“ said in disbelief a mindblown Doug Shedden. “I go back to 2008 when I was coaching in Zug, my first year, and we won like 13 out of the last 15 games to get the last playoff spot, and every night there was a different hero, scoring with one second left, with a shorthanded goal, just goofy stuff. Every night, there was a different hero, and that’s kind of what we’re seeing right now. Every night, somebody’s making a big play at the right time, which we need. Pops made a great shot. I was kidding, was that number 66 Mario Lemieux, or was it number 6 Popovic, kind of confused me a little bit. Just a great play, great shot“
“Both teams played very well, both teams created chances, but we didn’t succeed to score during overtime“ said Butsayev. “I’m not completely satisfied with the referees (Shedden adds “Yeah, we can say that every night“), but we got a point and we’re looking at our next game“
In the six games before the Spengler Cup, Medveščak had a 2-4 record being outscored 15:25. However, in the six games since returning from the tournament in Davos, the Bears have a 4-2 record, outshooting their opponents 20:18.
“We worked hard again“ said Popovic. “Since the Spengler Cup we’ve been playing great hockey, and if we do that we’re going to win most of these games. Right now, there’s a great energy in the room, there’s passion. We’re making the smart plays and the goaltender’s coming up with the saves. Let’s just keep it going“
“Obviously, we’re in a desperation situation, every point is so important“ said a determined Shedden. “Sochi is 10 points ahead of us now, but we’re just trying to grab that right spot, and to get the extra point tonight was huge. We got better as the game went on and Cal Heeter has really given us a good chance to win some games right now with making some big saves. We’re very happy about the extra point“
Medveščak’s attendance numbers have dropped since last season, and since leaving the EBEL. One can perhaps blame it on the 33 home game schedule, the many games played on working days, or even global warming. On weekends, however, it is challenging to spot an empty seat. A nearly sold out Dom sportova was behind Medveščak as they propelled their way to their fifth win in seven games, and the fans were rewarded with not one, but two encores from the players after the game.
“When our fans come it’s always nice to reward them“ said Popovic. “We worked hard tonight and we ended up with the two points. Hopefully they’ll be back next time because we need them. We have eight road games coming up, so these next two home games are super important, they’re must wins and I hope to see the fans out there“
“Yeah, of course, they’re really great“ said Hedberg. “It means a lot in a game like this, especially when we need the points, that they have our back. That’s incredible“
After five wins in seven games, the Bears have made up a lot of ground, and are now right back in the fight for the Postseason (Note to everyone: Yes, I did knock three times on wood as I was writing this).
“Absolutely, it’s why I play the game, that’s what it’s all about“ said Popovic. “The regular season is just a warm up for playoffs, and we’ve got a chance, especially if we keep winning. It would be cool to be closer, but the reality is we have to make up more ground, and the West is a strong conference. We play a lot of those teams and we have 12-13 games left, we have to win the majority of them“
“We gained a point, I think we’re six back now, still a lot to go“ said a conclusive Shedden. “We’re still alive and that’s the main thing, we live to talk another day“