If Saturday’s 6-0 score line failed to do justice to Cardiff’s performance, then Sunday provided a little retribution in that respect.
Both teams made changes with Cardiff’s player/coach Andrew Lord suited and booted behind the bench.
The visitors rested Captain Mike Glumac, with Mark Katic wearing the “C” and Niko Hovinen replacing Danny Taylor between the pipes.
Unlike the previous encounter, the opening minutes were all action and plenty of goal scoring opportunities for both teams.
The Devils almost fell behind inside 15 seconds as Tomas Mertl and Brandon McMillan combined but Ben Bowns was alert to the danger.
Gleason Fournier responded in kind and looks to be a real gem for Cardiff and certain to be one of the best players in the Elite League this season. Delivering a great piece of skill, the 24 year old was only denied a great chance by a trailing Zagreb defenseman, before finally able to test Hovinen with a snapshot on the same shift.
Luke Piggott should really have done better when sent in alone on a breakaway after a fantastic stretch pass down the middle of the ice. The Calgary native could only fire his effort into the chest of Hovinen for a more comfortable save than it should have been.
After surviving that near miss, Medveščak’s *new* captain would ring an effort off the post after a terrific team move from the Bears, with Bowns floundering to stop the second shot as his team-mates were caught running around.
The opening goal felt like it wasn’t far away and it finally came with 6:26 on the clock.
Defenseman Jakub Krejcik really should have scored on a feed from Alexandre Bolduc but Edwin Hedberg would finally hit the twine to put his team up 1-0.
The majority of Cardiff fans who attended on Saturday would have just been hoping to see their Devils score just once.
They received their wish immediately as the home team tied the game within seconds of falling behind.
Guillaume Doucet was guilty of not taking a gilt edge chance but Joey Haddad was on hand to dish off to Layne Ulmer, who made no mistake.
The relief was palpable amongst players and fans alike and that momentum led to the Devils earning a power play.
However it was almost another short-handed goal for the Bears who scored their fifth on Saturday in such a fashion. A couple of crazy bounces led to Francis Pare skating away alone in on Bowns.
The GB net minder made an outstanding save to deny the five-hole effort and was relieved to see a flurry of team-mates come to his rescue to deny Yann Sauve from scoring into an open net.
Penalties became the theme of the second half of the opening frame and Cardiff paid the price.
If home fans wanted to see evidence of the skill in the KHL it was no better encapsulated in a tic-tac-toe goal involving a triangle pattern of players with Colby Genoway providing the finishing tough.
Cardiff would survive their next penalty kill but back at even strength were reliant on Bowns to keep the game close. His saves to deny Smejkal and Ilya Arkalov were top draw.
A late flurry in the last 45 seconds from the Devils almost tied the game up but Hovinen was able to scoop the puck up after four or five attempts in tight by the home team.
Only trailing 2-1, Cardiff were presented with a cheap power play opportunity less than five minutes into the second period, as Tom Zanoski continued to play after having his helmet dislodged.
Medveščak killed the penalty with little alarm and showed their killer instincts shortly afterwards.
Samson Mahbod was slashed as he shot on a partial breakaway, drawing a power play for the Bears.
That man Genoway found the net once again, potting home a rebound from Alexandre Giroux’s initial effort.
Patrick Asselin looks to be a promising signing for the Devils and his best chance of the night followed shortly after the Devils fell 3-1 behind but Hovinen smothered the shot.
The Devils lack of discipline wasn’t allowing them to sustain any kind of pressure or momentum at even strength but they were able to deny the Bears a third power play marker with a strong PK effort.
Medveščak perhaps lost a little focus with the way the game was transpiring and Cardiff’s best spell of the middle frame came with around seven minutes left.
Doucet was the first to test Hovinen before the Bears sloppy play led to a breakaway for the home team.
Scott Hotham and Layne Ulmer having glorious chances but both were spurned on the same play.
If words were said on the Zagreb bench then it had the desired affect as we witnessed the true gulf in talent between these two teams for the final 100 seconds of the second period.
Zanoski really should have beaten Bowns and the Devils goaltender make a remarkable save from Goran Bezina shortly after. Another crisp, fast passing play had the home team floundering, including Bowns who was down and out but still managed a remarkable mid-air stick save from his backside, to deny the 36 year old defenseman.
Cardiff were certainly thankful for the period buzzer to sound but would face another penalty kill as the final twenty minutes began.
Genoway was in the thick of the power play action again but this time it was Giroux who ripped a shot on net that brought more excellence from Bowns.
Medveščak continued to dominant possession and push the play until some 4-on-4 action six minutes in.
Andrew Hotham and Doucet combining with great affect but unable to beat Hovinen.
Sean Bentivoglio and Fournier were the next to create a good opportunity but the latter failed to really test Hovinen from a promising position.
A second goal from the home team should have come during this spell of pressure and no more so than when Chris Jones delivered a cross ice feed to Piggott who contrived to miss the net on a sliding effort.
The centreman only needed to hit the target but his miss allowed the visitors an odd-man rush back the other way.
Fortunately Medveščak were guilty of taking a penalty on the play, allaying the opportunity to create a chance and sending Cardiff back on the power play.
The Bears came close to scoring again while short-handed thanks to a piece of individual brilliance from Arkalov. Skipping around two players, the Russian native was in on goal but turned aside by Bowns.
As the game entered the last five minutes Cardiff threw the proverbial kitchen sink at Medveščak in an all out effort to close within one. Unable to force home the puck by Hovinen on two separate scramble in the Zagreb crease, their effort was loudly applauded at the next stoppage of play by the home fans who appreciated the real effort and intensity of their team.
Hedberg so nearly claimed his second goal of the night after a nice set-up from Pare and with 2:31 remaining, Andrew Lord pulled Bowns for the extra attacker.
The crowd responded to the initiative by raising the noise level and not once but twice the Devils so nearly grabbed themselves a second tally. They did earn themselves a power play for a little 6 on 4 action but it proved futile.
Within seconds of play restarting, an unfortunate misplay of the puck at the blue line by Fournier allowed McMillan to ease the puck into an empty net to secure the victory.
There would be no further scoring but a 4-1 final was at least a fair reflection of Cardiff’s effort in a game which was close and competitive for far longer periods of time than on Saturday.
The Man of the Match Awards were presented to Medveščak’s Colby Genoway for two power play goals and Cardiff’s Ben Bowns for an outstanding performance between the pipes.
An excellent weekend of hockey in which both teams would have benefited greatly.
In what was my first look at the Cardiff Devils, I believe they have every chance of having a successful season with their strength in depth, the added ability to roll four lines and excellent goaltending from Bowns.
I’m intrigued to see how they fare next weekend against an EBEL outfit with another week of training under their belts.
Medveščak Zagreb showed their class at times but it was the chemistry between certain players and lines that is the most promising aspect.
Samson Mahbod, Brandon McMillan and Jiri Smejkal were surprising standouts for me for differing reason, while Colby Genoway looks like he can produce more than last season.
Goran Bezina looks a very good singing on the blue and owns a deceivingly good shot.
Derek Smith was able to play both games and quarter-backed the powerplay with good success, while Yann Suave also looks like he can provide some much needed offensive from the backend.
My thanks to Cardiff Devils for allowing me the opportunity to cover the weekend and for being so accommodating and to everyone involved with Medveščak Zagreb, who were truly first class.
I’ll have more to come from the weekend after having interviewed players and coaches.