Around the arena, and daubed on the walls between the metro station and Spartak’s home, a simple slogan declares ‘Spartak Must Live!’ On the ice, however, there had been few signs of life – the Red and Whites had been beaten in eight previous encounters ahead of Wednesday’s meeting with Medvescak, and a play-off place looks to be a forlorn hope at this stage of the season.
Wednesday’s 3-1 defeat at home to Medvescak was Spartak’s ninth in a row, and not for the first time it came in a game where the Red-and-Whites held a lead and looked – for a time, at least – capable of taking a win which might maintain those play-off hopes at least a little longer.
Of course the club’s current problems run rather deeper than disappointing form – the sudden collapse of the bank which was general sponsor has placed the whole operation on a precarious financial footing, prompting unhappy memories of the 2006-07 Russian Superleague season when Spartak was unable to ice a team.
Part of the cost-cutting exercise has seen a rapid rise for the club’s young players – last season MHK Spartak, the junior roster, made it to the MHL’s grand final; defenseman Valery Vasilyev (top) returned to action today after winning bronze with team Russia at the World Under-20s in Malmo last week. Two months shy of his 23rd birthday, former CSKA prospect Andrei Sergeyev is already among the more experienced D-men available to wily head coach Fyodor Kanareikin. If the Red-and-Whites are to survive, it will be down to this production line of eager young talent as much as any boardroom juggling.
At the same time, crowds are up. Perhaps perversely, the deeper the crisis, the greater the loyalty. Supporters here are used to hard times on the ice, and if the club’s current problems have put the skids under Kanareikin’s promising team, it will take more than poor results to discourage the faithful.
Against a Medvescak team which is battling hard to secure a play-off spot in its debut season Spartak made a bright start. Eight minutes in Vyacheslav Kozlov converted the first powerplay of the night as Barry Brust was beaten by a powerful shot from the point. At 41, Kozlov would be a veteran in any team, but here he has just two teammates within 10 years of him. Two further powerplays generated little, with Brust making one acrobatic stop from Mikhail Yunkov. Jeff Glass was largely untroubled at the other end as Spartak took a confidence-boosting lead into the interval.
Confidence is a fragile thing, though. In the early exchanges of the second session Spartak fluffed a couple of presentable chances and the self-belief almost visibly faded. Medvescak’s first powerplay ended with Charles Linglet lifting the puck into the roof of the net from a tight angle after a neat interchange with Mark Popovic and suddenly Glass was the busier of the goaltenders. After dominating much of the earlier play, Spartak was feeding on breakaways, but could still curse its luck when Igor Volkov’s impressive turn of speed saw him charge out of center ice only to be hauled down while shaping to shoot. The subsequent penalty shot beat Brust but squirmed along the goal-line to safety via the inside of the post.
Spartak never came as close again, despite an even third session. Ultimately Medvescak’s greater experience told: with less than four minutes to play Bill Thomas found the space and composure to draw Glass out of position and lay up the puck for Matt Murley to tap home the game-winner. Boyd Kane’s empty-netter in the last minute merely confirmed another unhappy outcome as the Zagreb team maintained its own, ever-growing hopes of a debut play-off campaign.