Medveščak Zagreb won just 17 games in regulation during the 2014/15 season.
As they seemingly lurched from one disaster to another last year, the summer of 2015 brought much trepidation for the Bears fans.
A brand new looking roster without much KHL experience and a rookie head coach in the shape of Gordie Dwyer.
Even the most ardent Medveščak supporter could not have envisaged such a positive start to this season, five games in.
Despite blowing a two goal lead in a opening day home shootout defeat to Amur, the Bears from Zagreb have not been defeated in the four games since.
Admiral and Sibir were both beaten in regulation and let’s not forget how good the latter were last season (second in the East) and once again look a force this year.
Finding different ways to win despite sometimes being the architects of their own downfall, Medveščak downed Metallurg Nk in a shootout thanks to an incredible game winner from Colby Genoway. They then proceeded to take down Dinamo Riga in the last outing. The hero in overtime was Marek Kvapil with an absolute snipe to secure the extra point, which took them to the top of the standings in the West.
All this despite having issues between the pipes so early in the season. Danny Taylor had looked superb until apparently injuring his knee in game three. Cal Heeter came in to secure the victory and then proceeded to win his first start. Gordie Dwyer then threw a curveball by starting third string net minder Kroselj Gasper but the 28yo making his first KHL start allowed just one goal in 62 minutes to prove his coach made the right call.
After allowing almost 200 goals last season it’s the defensive side of things that has been more impressive thus far with Medveščak allowing only nine goals in five games. It’s been the key to the success, as has generally staying out of the penalty box.
Last season Medveščak racked up over 1000 penalty minutes at a staggering average of 17 per game.
Cutting that in half so far, the Bears have looked more disciplined but will need that downward trend to continue against some potent power play units in the KHL.
Goal scoring has been by committee with the 14 tallies shared by ten players and defensemen have stepped into the fold.
Patrick Bjorkstrand leads the way with three (he scored just seven the whole of last season), Marek Kvapil has two, as does defenseman Geoff Kinrade, with both turning out to be game winners.
Stefano Giliati is the teams surprising points leads at this juncture with four to his name in what’s been a good start to life in the KHL for him.
Kvapil has an assist to go with his pair of goals, while Simon Gysbers has a goal and an assist from the backend. The team will doubtless be expecting more from the latter with his booming shot not really enough of a factor yet.
The power play, which wasn’t a pretty sight last season, has had it’s struggles this year, running at under 12%. Often guilty of looking for the perfect play, there isn’t enough urgency with the extra man as yet, which has belied the teams excellent work at even strength.
During five-on-five play Medveščak have thoroughly impressed at times with sheer hard graft and a strong fore-check. Opponents have struggled to clear their own zone as the Bears sheer will to shut down clearing lanes along the boards has resulted in turnovers and greater offensive zone time.
The will of this team to work extremely hard is not to be underestimated. There doesn’t appear to be any prima donnas amongst the troops.
Clearing and exiting their own zone has been another positive for Medveščak for the most part. At their best when looking for the simple, effective play and only falling into strife when trying to be fancy with no-look drop passes and the like.
Offensive zone entries are certainly a work in progress but I would not doubt this teams ability to work that out as the season progresses. You have to give a lot of credit to the coaching staff, headed up by Gordie Dwyer.
Some of his decisions have been questioned but so far all the answers have been forthcoming. A three game road trip in six days will doubtless pose more questions but you can only tip your hat to Dwyer so far. Calling a timeout in overtime to set-up the power play in the last game against Riga certainly proved to be the smart call.