A Michael St Croix goal six seconds from time condemned the Edinburgh Capitals to a 2-1 opening pre-season defeat at the hands of the University of Manitoba Bisons at Murrayfield Ice Rink.
In a game that was pretty even for long periods, the Capitals will not look back too fondly at how the winner materialised as a turnover and subsequent lapse in concentration gifted the visitors their second victory of their four game tour of the United Kingdom.
The Canadian university side were never likely to be pushovers though, arriving in the Scottish capital fresh off an encouraging two-game series against the Belfast Giants which they drew one apiece – only falling to defeat in the second of those games by virtue of an overtime loss. They now complete their visit of Scotland with a trip to Braehead Clan later this week.
In the circumstances Edinburgh mustered an encouraging performance as their new look squad takes shape under the stewardship of NHL legend Dmitri Khristich.
But their pre-season preparations were dealt a blow with five import absentees owing to a combination of visa issues and late arrivals, as fan favourite Pavel Vorobyev and new signings Alexander Islamov, Konstantin Teslyukevich, Sergei Banashkov and Igor Valeyev were all missing.
Such a short-bench did, however, grant plenty of ice time to the sides Brit corps with all bar back-up netminder Jordan McLaughlin logging several shifts as they too get up to speed.
There was even a rare appearance from winger Michael Ireland who failed to make a single Elite League appearance last term, while new boy forward Duncan Speirs covered in defence with Edinburgh only dressing five out and out defenceman.
Eventual man-of-the-match Calum Robertson, signed alongside brother Aaron from the Fife Falcons, even made an appearance on the Caps’ top line alongside fellow new recruits Dylan Anderson and the impressive Mike Cazzola, and he made quite the first impression.
Indeed the Capitals could have raced out into an early lead had it not been for the intervention of Bisons netminder Byron Spriggs who deflected away Cazzola’s early sighter with the blocker.
However after Cazzola’s next effort was foiled by Spriggs who held on well, Mike Sirant’s visitors grabbed the lead after just 4:18 played.
For all the promise of the hosts’ start, the Bisons emerged with something of a spring in their step too and Edinburgh will be disappointed with how Manitoba managed to create something from nothing.
A speedy break saw the puck flash across the face of goal and, when the Capitals failed to clear the zone, Zach Franko was on hand to fire the puck into an empty net with Pavel Shegalo stranded.
If the decent crowd assembled at Murrayfield feared a long evening they needn’t have with Edinburgh producing the kind of reaction that not only demonstrated character but one that would have been demanded by coach Khristich.
The returning Callum Boyd, back in the Scottish capital after a year away with Braehead, twice went close to marking his second debut with a goal, the second of those chances a cheeky wrap around try that nearly got the better of Spriggs.
The leveller itself was not long in coming, though it may have never materialised had the Bisons doubled their lead with just over six minutes played.
They were unfortunate not to have done in truth as Justin Augert was afforded the time to glide into the slot, striking a deflected effort onto Shegalo’s left post after a promising move.
It proved to be quite the momentum swinger with Edinburgh knotting things up at one apiece within minutes of that scare.
Cazzola, the ECHL top rookie points scorer with Fort Wayne last season, showed just why Scott Neil had headhunted him, breaking up the play in his own zone and springing a Capitals counter attack going the other way.
The Canadian centre’s feed for Robertson was inch perfect and rather than returning the favour on a two on one chance, the 16-year-old Scot gave us a glimpse of his promise by showing terrific composure to fire an effort into the corner beyond Spriggs with 9:42 remaining in the opening frame.
Time will tell whether Robertson will be afforded Elite League ice time this season but he did his chances no harm at all with a clinical finish that belied his years.
Equally as impressive and encouraging was the play between line mates Cazzola and Anderson who, early days it may be, seem to be developing chemistry already.
Then, both sides traded chances before Ireland nearly made the desired impression, capitalising on a charge-down before bearing down on goal only to fire his back-hander wide of the mark as the first period ended all square.
The middle period by contrast was one littered by infractions by both sides, though neither team could cash in on their respective man advantages.
Again the quick tempo which defied the usual expectations of pre-season matches continued unabated, with Anderson sweeping wide and Bisons man-of-the-match Channing Bresciani hitting the side netting in quick succession of one another.
A series of four on four chances yielded little in the way of joy for either bench, while Jay King, who had just stepped out of the box and was found with a neat stretch pass, could only fire straight at Spriggs.
It appeared as if the momentum was drifting into the Murrayfield men’s favour although incredibly Boyd could not cap his return with Edinburgh’s second goal of the night.
Despite being picked out by an excellent feed by Michael D’Orazio, the Scottish forward fluffed his lines on a two on one chance.
Manitoba responded by swapping netminders with Dasan Sydora replacing Spriggs with 8:37 left of the second period as a gruelling third game in four days began to take hold.
Things did not let up in intensity though with King showing terrific awareness with a diving poke check to dispossess Shawn Bowles as he readied himself for the strike on an odd-man rush.
And, up the other end, Cazzola nearly added a goal to his earlier assist when he robbed Franko and raced through one on one with Sydora only to then see his backhand try saved.
The Capitals began the final period on the man advantage following a call against Bresciani as time expired though their exploits on the power play were not worthy of note in truth despite their best efforts.
Again it was Cazzola at the heart of Edinburgh’s best attacking play as he took receipt of the puck behind his own net and charged through the heart of the Bisons defence. It was the kind of mazy run you can be sure will become something of a fixture of the Capitals’ play this season.
It was not all one way traffic – far from it in fact – as Shegalo had to be on his toes to prevent Kamerin Nault from restoring Manitoba’s lead.
Not once but twice was the Canadian denied, first after good work by Franko and then after trying to round the Russian who stuck out a pad to make the stop.
Edinburgh’s lapse in concentration nearly proved more costly than simply losing the puck as Brett Dudar was denied on an odd-man rush after Rihards Grigors had carelessly conceded possession.
The visitors continued to pile on the pressure and were inches away from finding their second of the evening, stemming from a rapid clearance of their own zone as they turned defence into attack in an instant.
Augert could only slam his effort the wrong side of the upright after a sweet Bowles pass had presented the opening for the forward.
Up the other end, Capitals triallist Dillon Lawrence did his best to impress with a hard-working if unspectacular performance, but he nearly turned provider with just under 10 minutes remaining in the match.
The 22-year-old former Boston University centre’s marauding run and cut-back found the stick of Juris Upitis, though the Latvian winger could only manage to shoot straight at Sydora.
Edinburgh survived an almighty scare with eight minutes to play as interplay by Warren Callis, Augert and Bowles incredibly ended without the puck in the home net, despite a teasing pass across the face of goal that was crying out for meaningful contact.
Khristich’s Capitals nearly found the desired second with time running out as Upitis charged down Adam Henry’s neutral zone clearance and sped through with only Sydora to beat.
Rather than the net bulging though the Latvian international only succeeded in finding the body of the Manitoba netminder who saved.
It did not look like it would prove to be too costly a miss with time ticking down and overtime looking the likely outcome.
But sport has a habit of nasty surprises and, having been beaten at the death in Belfast on Sunday, Manitoba dished out a cruel blow of their own to snatch victory with just seconds remaining.
The Capitals only had themselves to blame however, failing to clear their zone more than once following an earlier turnover that led to St Croix finding the net after a scramble in front.
All Edinburgh’s work was undone in an instant. It was the type of crushing defensive lapse that typified last season, rearing its head in the most untimely fashion and proving that the back-end remains a work in progress for Khristich and his players.
It rather soured a positive display, yet in terms of the bigger picture the Capitals more than demonstrated the kind of signs that those connected with the club will hope generates a better season than the last few years have mustered.
Defeat it may have been but a sense of perspective is required too. Khristich’s side had useful minutes in what would have proved a useful exercise for the new coach, while Edinburgh’s Brit corps had plenty of shifts to demonstrate what they could do – none more emphatic than that of Calum Robertson.
With the Capitals’ numbers increasing all the time, Khristich should have a bigger squad than the current 18 to choose from when Edinburgh face conference rivals the Dundee Stars at home on Sunday.
Edinburgh coach Dmitri Khristich was largely satisfied with his players’ performance and expects his squad to learn the lessons from defeat and to learn together to ensure the same mistakes are not repeated.
He said: “I told the guys that overall it was not bad. I didn’t know what to expect and the thing is this team [Manitoba] have played against a team [in the Belfast Giants] who are good in this league and beat them and lost in overtime.
“We played at pretty much the same level [as Belfast] and that gives me an opportunity, the chance to think we are moving in the right direction and that we are going to be a competitive team in this league.
“I learnt one thing and [that is that] we are going to learn together. I am going to make them not make these kind of mistakes late in the game and even during the game.
“You should not be losing the puck at the blue line, especially when the other three guys are going to the net. The puck has to go deeper.”
The Ukrainian who is the Capitals’ first bench coach since 2010 was also pleased to see Calum Robertson make an immediate impact.
Khristich was, however, coy on the timetable for when the Caps’ last couple of roster spots will be filled but he does expect to have the five imports missing from the Manitoba game over at practice in the next few days.
“I am really glad for him [Calum Robertson]. He is the youngest on the team and he got the best of what he had with the chance two on one and he decided to shoot.
“He did not really look for the guy because he thought he was totally covered by the defence and he picked a corner and made the best out of it.
On the topic of players he continued: “Two guys already came in today [Tuesday] and they are going to be in practice tomorrow, and I have heard that another two [Konstantin Teslyukevich and Alexander Islamov] have got their visas today. I do not know much right now but Scott [Neil] will know when they are coming.”
Meanwhile, returning Capitals’ defenceman Rihards Grigors also shared his thoughts on the defeat and feels there is more to come from himself.
“We were practicing for just two days and all of our guys haven’t arrived yet, but tomorrow in practice we’ll have more [players],” said Grigors.
“I felt alright but I always can be better. During the summer I didn’t have the options to practice on the ice a lot.
“That [late goals] happens in ice hockey and we will work on that. It was OK for our first game because we only had two practices on the ice together and it is good for everyone also to get more ice time.”