RAPPERSWIL-JONA, Switzerland – The Espoo Blues lost their first Champions Hockey League game this season as the ZSC Lions Zurich won the first leg of the semi-final at home, 6-3. It was the first time in 13 years that a Swiss team defeated a Finnish team in major IIHF club competition.
The Lions continued their streak with their seventh consecutive win (CHL and Swiss league) by defeating the Blues. The game was played in front of a sell-out crowd (6,100) 25 kilometres away from Zurich in Rapperswil-Jona because the home arena was already booked. Should the Lions make the final, they will also play that game in Rapperswil-Jona.
Swiss-Canadian Jan Alston sealed the win with two third-period goals, one superb shot that made it 5-2 and an empty netter for 6-3.
The Swiss seemed more prepared than the Blues. Mark Bastl and Jan Alston, and Ryan Keller on the Finnish side, missed scoring opportunities in the first minutes but on the first ZSC power play, national team forward Thibaut Monnet tipped the puck into the net after a shorth-side shot by Domenico Pittis.
Pittis, Monnet and Alson had other big scoring chances, but it was Espoo’s Ville Lajunen who equalised just 52 seconds into the second period.
The ZSC Lions’ reply was hefty. Not that they dominated their opponent but Zurich created dangerous scoring chances and made use of them. Ryan Gardner regained the lead at 27:18 while the teams skated 4-on-4. Peter Sejna's rebound paved the way for a 3-1 lead three minutes later.
Sami Sandell brought the Blues back to within one when he stood perfectly positioned after Ryan Keller got the puck from the end boards. But Pittis had another big moment shortly after.
The Italian-Canadian skated in from the right and around a Blues defencemen like a slalom skier. Cyrill Bühler had just to tip in the puck on the far side after Pittis’ perfect feed.
Alston built the lead to 5-2 at 47:09 with a perfect shot on Brückler’s glove side. Joonas Nattinen made it 5-3 late in the third period but the Swiss prevented Espoo from coming closer than that. Alston scored his second goal into an empty net at 58:40.
"It was a good game. They're a very organized and disciplined team with a special 1-3-1 system we're not used to but we were very well prepared. They needed to open up as they were behind all the game which gave us good scoring chances. It was a big team effort," said Alston.
ZSC captain Seger added, "it's a very good start to the semi-finals but we need one more point in Espoo."
"Espoo is one of the best-organised teams my team has played for years. It's a big challenge to play them and it's a pleasure to play against different systems in the Champions Hockey League," ZSC coach Simpson said.
Espoo coach Petri Matikainen also saw a good game. "Unfortunately we were not so disciplined tonight. We usual don't allow six goals", he said. That's right as they had only four goals against in the four group stage games. "But it was a good place to play with a nice atmosphere, our boys competed well and we go home proudly."
The second game will be played in Espoo on January 7. The Blues need a victory to reach a shoot-out, the only way they can win the series.
ZSC winger Adrian Wichser had a tough night. Not only did he miss an open net at 41:24, he left the ice twice with a twisted wrist (at 38:50) and a facial cut (at 45:41) – but also returned twice.