Saturday, 28 January 2012

Round 43: Sparta pound Pardubice

Sparta increased their strangehold on the top spot in the Extraliga standings on Friday with a convincing 4-0 victory over fellow title contenders Pardubice at the Tipsport Arena. The Praha side now have a seven point lead over second place Plzeň, and a staggering 19 point lead over fourth placed Pardubice. There were four other games in the Extraliga on Friday, as both Mountfield and Kladno won in shootouts, defeating Slavia and Karlovy Vary respectively, and Vitkovice and Kometa both added three points to their totals with victories on the 27th, whilst Zlin routed Třinec on Thursday.

Sparta Praha 4 - 0 Pardubice
Sparta now sit seven points clear of the pack
Photo: Jan Benes
Title favourites Sparta reaffirmed their championship credentials with an impressive performance led by the superb top trio of Petr Ton, Mario Bližňák and Petr Tenkrát, Ton and Bližňák bagging three points, and Tenkrát two. This was Sparta's eighth win in a row, and they are playing great hockey at both ends of the ice, as Tomáš Pöpperle made thirty saves for his sixth shutout of the season. Michal Broš opened the scoring for the maroon boys in the sixteenth minute, and from then on Pardubice did little to really trouble the lead leaders, as they extended their lead to 3-0 at the second intermission, with goals coming from Slovak defenceman Michal Sersen and Sparta legend Petr Ton. Former Vancouver Canuck Mario Bližňák scored the only goal in the third period with a nifty move to beat Martin Růžička on the backhand. Pardubice's indifferent run continues, whilst Sparta keep on soaring.

Mountfield 3 - 2 Slavia Praha (Shootout)
Vondrka going close for Slavia
Photo: František Panec
With Plzeň not playing, Mountfield had the perfect opportunity to put some pressure on the second position in the Extraliga, but they will be disappointed they could not grab all the points from the o2 Arena. Slavia, whose promising play in the first few games of January is now a distant memory put in a good performance, but Jakub Kovář made 41 saves in Mountfield's shootout victory. However, going into the third period, Slavia were in command of the game, holding onto their 1-0 lead which came in the first period from a Michal Vondrka breakaway shot which went through Kovář's five hole. Slavia were 2-0 up after 42 minutes, as Petr Jelínek scored to double the away teams advantage, but 40 seconds later Mountfield pegged them back, as  František Ptáček fired home after pinching on the play. With ten minutes left in the third, Mountfield were pressing, and their efforts were finally rewarded with the equalising goal, as Pavel Kašpařík tapped home after Slavia's defence went missing. There was no more scoring in the game, so it would go to a shootout, and Roman Němeček fired home the winner. Mountfield will be pleased about the comeback, but will be disappointed not to have taken all three points at home. In the second period they also lost Slovakian defenceman Peter Mikuš, who left the ice on a stretcher after getting rocked by a clean open ice hit by Dmitrij Jaškin.

Vitkovice 5 - 3 Liberec
Vitkovice boosted their top six aspirations with an entertaining home victory against Liberec. The Ostrava side scored twice in the second and a further three times in the final frame to take the game away from the white tigers. Jiří Burger and Ondřej Šedivý both bagged a brace in the victory which sees Vitkovice hold onto sixth spot in the table, whilst Liberec's top six position now looks vulnerable, with only a point separating them from Vitkovice in sixth and Zlin in seventh. Jaroslav Kudrna had two assists for Liberec, but even majestic captain Petr Nedvěd couldn't carry his team to victory, although he did bag a third period consolation goal.

Zlin 5 - 1 Třinec
In Thursday's solitary game, Zlin put in a complete performance to outclass the Steelers from Třinec. Petr  Leška scored two goals within the space of twenty seconds at the end of the first period to send Zlin in with a 3-1 lead at the first break, adding to Czech U-20 star Petr Holík's opener eleven minutes in. Luboš Horčička put in an accomplished performance in goal, making 32 saves to make his case to be the starting goalie in Zlin's playoff push, whilst 19 year old Petr Zamorsky bagged three assists for the home side. It was an all round bad day at the office for Třinec, who fall to ninth place, reeling from the loss of Ladislav Kohn, who left the side to join Ambri-Piotta in the Swiss Nationalliga A.

Kometa Brno 4 - 1 Litvinov
In a bottom of the table encounter, Kometa gave themselves breathing room over the relegation pack with a solid 4-1 victory over 11th placed Litvinov. In what was an all round bad performance for the Verva boys, Kometa took advantage and scored practically all their goals on odd man rushes, with Roman Erat, Miroslav Holec and Robert Petrovicky all grabbing a goal and an assist from Friday night's game. Kometa outshot Litvinov 42 to 30, and Petr Franěk put in a commendable performance in the Litvinov cage, only allowing three shots past him, but he was let down by his teams defence, who quit on a number of plays, and left him hanging to dry. Karel Kubát scored Litvinov's solitary goal in the third period.

Karlovy Vary 1 - 2 Kladno (Shootout)

In another game with connotations concerning the relegation pack, Kladno scraped a victory on the road against stragglers Karlovy Vary. With the victory Kladno leapfrog over Třinec into eighth place, as the knights hope to rekindle their promising early year form. In what was for all intents and purposes a poor game of hockey, Kladno started off the better side, and took the lead three minutes into the game as Slovakian forward Jiří Bicek finished off a nice move by his line, with Patera and Kalla getting the assists. Both teams went back and forth for the rest of the first and the second, and Karlovy Vary started to get into the game and they finally equalised with 35 minutes on the clock, as Petr Kumstát pounced on a great stretch pass from Lukáš Pech, and fired home on the breakaway. There would be no more scoring, so a shootout beckoned, and Michal Dragoun scored the clinching goal, firing a nice backhand move past Dušan Salficky.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Slovakia prepares for World Under-18 tournament

HK Orange 20, the project run by the SZLH to improve Slovakia's results in the Under-20 and Under-18 tournaments has received its new set of youngsters, as Slovakia seeks to win promotion from the tournament in April. Slovakia find themselves in Division 1A, the second rung of the Under-18 after being relegated from the top division last year, and will be desperate to win the competition, which is being held in Piestany, and reclaim their place in the elite of the age group.

The Orange 20 side, who play their games in Puchov, two hours north-east of Bratislava is now focused on the Under-18 World Championships for the rest of the year, and there are a number of prospects who will be looking to use the experience they gain in the Extraliga and 1. Liga games in order to help bolster their chances of being drafted. Many of the elite Slovak youngsters see their junior career in the CHL, but for many prospects, playing for the Orange outfit is a way of gaining vital ice time against professional sides.

The new roster for Orange 20 is as follows:

Goalies: Michal Dovina (Dukla Trenčín), Richard Sabol (HC '05 Banská Bystrica)

Defence: Michal Valjent, (HC Slovan Bratislava), Richard Buri (HC Nitra), Martin Chrkavý (HC Topoľčany), Lubomir Dinda (HK SKP Poprad), Jakub Predajnianský (HC '05 Banská Bystrica), Tomáš Rusina (MHC Martin), Denis Šimek (HK Trnava), Peter Šohajda (HK 36 Skalica)

Forwards: Ján Blaško, Marko Daňo, Patrik Koyš (all Dukla Trenčín), David Gríger, Andreas Štrauch (both HK ŠKP Poprad), Stanislav Horanský, Dominik Rehák (both MsHK Žilina), Eduard Šimun (HC '05 Banská Bystrica), Milan Kolena (MHC Martin), Dávid Šoltés (HC Košice) Denis Šimurka (EHC Linz, Austria)

Marko Daňo during the World Junior Championships
Photo: Majo Srnik
The side have played two games at the time of writing, as they faced off against 1.liga sides HC Prešov 07 and HC 46 Bardejov, losing both games by scores of 6-3 and 7-3 respectively. This side will be relying heavily on the performances of  Marko Daňo, who was one of the finds of the World Junior Championships in Alberta, where he found himself on the top line for Slovakia in the final game against the Czech Republic.Another player who will be one to watch is sixteen year old Patrik Koyš. The former HK Dubnica junior has made big waves since his performances in the Under-18 league at the age of 14, scoring 52 points in 48 games. Since then he made the move to one of the Slovakian powerhouses, HK Dukla Trenčín, and has impressed, scoring 73 points in the Under-18's last year, before making the step up to the Under-20's this season, scoring 26 points in 27 games before moving to Puchov, where he scored two points (1+1) in the opening game against Bardejov, before being held scoreless against Prešov. Koyš, who entered the spotlight, especially in North America after an article from 2009 is a 2014 NHL draft eligible prospect, and it remains to be seen whether or not he will move to the CHL in the next couple of years, but the 6'0'' winger is certainly one to look out for.

Richard Sabol in action for Slovakia-20
Photo: Majo Srnik
The new Orange roster features two players who were on the International Scouting Service's radar, as netminder Richard Sabol, who was the third goalie for the Under-20's in Alberta is ranked eighth on the list of European netminders, whilst defenceman Richard Buri is listed as the 130th best European skater in the Mid-term rankings. The chances of these two getting drafted is unlikely, and if they do manage to get drafted, it will be in the later rounds. The captain of Orange 20 is now MHC Martin forward Martin Kolena, who has had a very impressive season for Martin so far, scoring 35 points in 29 games.

However, all is not great in the camp, as there are a number of notable absences. First the SZLH had issues with Poprad over the releasing of players to the Puchov program. Poprad, whose Under-18's face the prospect of relegation to the second tier were desperate to keep a hold of their 1994 born players in order to help them stay up. However, after missing the sides first game, the three Poprad prospects, Dinda, Štrauch and Griger were in the lineup, the latter having a goal and an assist against Prešov. Head coach of both the 18's and the 20's Ernest Bokroš has been working hard to try and get some of the prospects playing abroad to come and play for Orange, and whilst the likes of Denis Šimurka, who is currently part of EHC Linz's junior program in Austria joined the program, others from abroad have stayed put.

Most notably is forward Martin Reway, who has been Slovakia's best player in recent international tournament play has decided to stay with Sparta Praha in the Czech Republic. Reway, who transfered to Martin's juniors after playing for home town Dolny Kubin is one of Slovakia's best prospects, and is having a sparkling debut season in the Czech Under-18's, scoring 41 points in just 17 games. Reway will be hoping to get time with the Under-20's for the rest of the season, and will be a major player for Slovakia Under-18 at the World Championship. That's if his medication for his asthma passes IIHF doping standards, which was a concern he recently eluded to an interview with HKm Zvolen forward Tomáš Török is also absent from the tournament, aiming to get an injury plagued season back on track after leaving HC Slavia Praha in the Summer. Matej Paulovic has also stayed away, electing to stay with Färjestad in Sweden. Paulovic, a lanky scorer made the move to Sweden after a great season for HC Topoľčany Under-18's scoring 62 points in 42 games. After a relatively slow start, Paulovic, an early 1995 born has certainly impressed, scoring 28 points in 17 J18 Elit games, and getting called up to the elite Swedish junior division, the SuperElit.

Promotion is a must for this cohort of Under-18's, and the chemistry that the players will hopefully get from playing together will go a long way to securing their future in the elite of the Under-18's in the world.

Monday, 16 January 2012

Maroon is the colour.

Sunday afternoon saw the third edition of the Battle of the Vltava, as the old rivals Sparta and Slavia faced off at the o2 Arena, with the game having more connotations than just the pride of Prague. Sparta needed the win to keep their slender lead at the top of the table over Plzeň, whilst Slavia, riding a three game win streak, were looking to move out of the relegation places for the first time in three months. 11284 fans were in attendance as the two sides battled out a closely fought game, which was much tighter than the teams respective league positions would suggest, but eventually the league leaders Sparta got the break through in the final frame, and took the game 2-1.

 Bližňák scores the winner in the Prague derby
Photo: Pavel Vrtiška 
The first period was very open and very physical. European hockey has a reputation, especially in North America and Britain of being soft, and having no hitting. Try telling that to these two clubs, as they were going at it hammer and nail to try and get the advantage. Slavia actually outshot their guests, as the hosts had 30 shots to Sparta's 27, but they lacked that clinical edge which good teams have. Slavia had numerous breakaway attempts, but Tomáš Pöpperle stopped each one of them, making up for his teams rather lacklustre defensive performance. After a scoreless first, Sparta would open the scoring in this game, as they would make the man advantage count. Jan Dresler took a needless neutral zone hooking penalty and Sparta made them pay, the goal coming from the stick of Petr Tenkrát, who fired home from the left wing circle, leaving Dominik Furch flapping at thin air. Slavia rallied back though, and mid-way through the second frame they levelled the score, as Vladimír Růžička Jr. tipped a Jakub Šulc point shot past Pöpperle. The third period was a tight affair, as neither team wanted to be the one that made the mistake that cost them the points. Slavia went close early on as Michal Vondrka was denied from close range, and then Czech Under-20 forward Tomáš Hertl was sent to the box for checking from behind, giving Sparta a powerplay, and they made it count. Petr Tenkrát's point shot was deflected by an unwitting Mario Bližňák past Furch and into the goal, sending the fans in the Maroon jersies wild, whilst the red and white of Slavia held their heads in their hands, and rued their missed chances. Sparta took all three points back to Holešovice, and kept their one point lead at the top of the standings.

Other games around the Extraliga:

Plzeň 10 - 4 Liberec
Jan Kovář scoring one of  Plzeň's ten goals
Photo: Milan Podpera 
It was a fourteen goal thriller at the ČEZ Aréna, as second placed Plzeň kept up the pressure on Sparta with their 12th win in a row, and now go into Thursday's massive game with Sparta as the favourites. Radek Duda, who started last year in the 1.liga continued his magnificent form with five points (2+3) against Liberec, who shipped nine goals in the first two periods, surprisingly leaving Tomáš Vošvrda in for all ten of the goals. It only took Plzeň eleven seconds to get on the board, as Canadian defenceman Nicholas St.Pierre fired home. Liberec did lead the game mid way through the first period, as they took the lead at the twelve minute mark, but that was all the joy they were going to get, as the Pilsner boys scored three times in five minutes to go into the first period 4-2 to the good. Jan Kovář, Pavel Vostřák and Martin Straka all had three points for Plzeň, whilst Petr Nedvěd managed to keep his grip on the scoring title lead, as he added two assists, leaving him tied with Duda on 44 points. Poor old Petr did go -4 on the night though! With just two and a half minutes left in the game things got nasty as Martin Heřman for the Indians and Daniel Špaček for Liberec got 5+game for a brief fight, which mostly ended up being a spot of hugging.

Kladno 3 - 1 Mountfield
In the shock result of the day, Kladno turned their recent run around and put Mountfield to the sword, taking a back and forth game 3-1. Kladno broke their three game losing skid to pick up three vital points against a championship contender. After a horrible run of form, Jan Chábera put in a great performance, making 36 saves to deny the Mountfield shooters. Tomáš  Knotek was the star of the show as he bagged himself two goals, whilst veteran Slovak forward Jiří Bicek added the other, with a brilliant solo effort. Bicek faked the shot, cut to the left around the defenceman before rifling it over Jakub Kovář's shoulder. Mountfield outshot Kladno heavily, but it's Jarda Jágr's team which gets the three points.

Litvínov 4 - 3 Pardubice (Shootout)
In another surprising turn of events, Litvinov picked up a vital win at home against Pardubice, who have now dropped two games in a row. In a game littered with penalties it was difficult for either side to get any momentum, but Pardubice had the better of the early exchanges, taking the lead just two minutes in with a goal from Lukáš Nahodil. However, with just 41 seconds left in the first, Litvinov got a vital goal to swing the game in their direction, as relative newcomer Jakub Černý fired home for his first goal since signing from TPS in the SM-Liiga. Litvinov took the lead with the only goal in the second period, as Martin Hujsa scored, tipping in a Brejčák point shot. Pardubice came back hard in the third, and tied the game at 2 with a Robert Kousal goal, but just two minutes later Litvinov took the lead again, this time Robin Hanzl finding the net, beating Martin Růžička with a lovely move on a penalty shot. Pardubice though, were like the smell you just can't seem to escape, and with a little over four minutes left in the third, they got the equaliser, as Jan Buchtele  capitalised on a horrible giveaway to put the backhand home. Pardubice put Vladislav Koutsky in goal for the shootout, and acquitted himself well, but Martin Volke was able to make that one extra stop in sudden death to take the extra point for the black and yellow side.

Vítkovice 4 - 1 Třinec
Vitkovice had a point to prove after being trashed 6-0 by Slavia in their last match, and they rallied back with a fine 4-1 victory in the battle of the steel cities. Three goals in six second period minutes took the game away from Třinec as Juraj Štefanka, Jiří Burger and Juraj Sykora all scored to cancel out Lukáš Bolf's opener and then some. With teams around them winning, Třinec see themselves moving further away from the automatic playoff spots and closer to the relegation places, as the crowded middle of the table means that wins are so vital at this point in the season. Roman Málek returned to his best, making 29 saves for the victory.

Zlin 2 - 3 Kometa Brno (Overtime)
Kometa got their second two point win in a row, beating local rivals Zlin in a rather dull affair. Jiří Trvaj once again proved that age is no barrier for him, as the 37 year old netminder put in a sparkling performance, making 41 saves for his sides victory. Zlin got on the board first, as Pavel Kubiš scored just 81 seconds into the game, finishing off a lovely piece of work between Petr Čajánek and himself, cutting through the Brno defence like a knife through warm butter. However Kometa equalised before the first intermission, eventually scoring after rotten defensive work by Zlin. The blue and yellow boys took the lead once more in the second period, as lanky forward Bedřich Köhler pounced on a rebound off the post, with Trvaj miles out of his crease. With ten minutes left in the third, Brno were anxious to get the tying goal, and they eventually got it, as Tomáš Svoboda picked up the rebound off of Jakub Sedláček's pads and fired home into the empty net. This game went to the extra frame, and it was Brno who would steal the extra point, with Miroslav Holec scoring the winning goal for Zdenek Venera's men.

Mlada Boleslav 4 - 2 Karlovy Vary
In a bottom of the table encounter, Mlada Boleslav picked up three much needed points, breaking their five game losing skid, and leapfrogging Karlovy Vary to reclaim 13th place in the standings. Mlada scored all their goals in the first period, chasing Dusan Salficky from the game after eight minutes. Zbyněk Hrdel and Jiří Cetkovsky scored before the eight minute mark, as Salficky was yanked after conceding two goals on seven shots. Mensator made 25 saves in relief, but Karlovy Vary had a tough time beating Michal Valent in the Mlada net. Tomáš Sykora scored mid way through the first to make it 2-1, but Mlada scored twice more before the break, as Andrej Podkonicky and Tomáš Jiránek scored, and Jaroslav Balaštík had two assists to give Mlada Boleslav a huge three points, and perhaps reignite their playoff challenge.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Majestic Mazanec steals the points for Plzeň

It was another busy Friday in the Czech Extraliga, as all fourteen teams were in action, with the biggest game of the night being the top of the table clash between second placed Plzeň and third placed Pardubice, with the former nicking two points with a shootout victory on the road. League leaders Sparta broke away from Plzeň by comfortably beating Litvinov, giving them a one point lead in the Extraliga standings, whilst HC Mountfield leapfrogged Pardubice to claim third spot at the end of the gameday with a close fought victory against Zlin. Kladno's sudden loss of form continued, as they got spanked 8-2 by Liberec, and Slavia moved up to 11th place with a dominating performance, defeating Vitkovice 6-0 on their travels. Kometa finally got back to winning ways as they beat last placed Mlada Boleslav in a shootout.

Marek Mazanec making one of his 32 saves
in Plzeň's shootout win over Pardubice
photo: Jan Jedlička 
Back to the game of the night, and the fans at the ČEZ Aréna in Pardubice were treated to a great game of hockey, in which Pardubice had the better of play for the most part. 9455 were in attendance as the home side laid siege on Marek Mazanec at times, but the twenty year old goalie had probably his best Extraliga performance to date as he made 32 saves, as well as both of Pardubice's shootout attempts. However, there was nothing he could do about the first Pardubice goal, as Martin Šagát fired past him after great work behind the net by Corey Elkins. Plzeň tied the game up with just 53 seconds to go in the first though, as Jan Kovář was hooked on a breakaway, giving him a penalty shot, which he expertly finished past Martin Růžička, shifting the puck onto his backhand and roofing it in the top of the net. Pardubice started the second period strongly though, and their pressure eventually paid off as young defenceman Marek Drtina scored his first ever Extraliga goal, with a tricky wrister from the point that eluded Mazanec and ended up in the back of the net. But once again, back came the Pilsner Urquell boys, and Pavel Vostřák scored, finishing off a great move by the Plzeň forwards, to leave the score at 2-2 at the second intermission. Plzeň took the lead for the first time in the game just three minutes into the third frame, with the goal coming from Václav Pletka, who's dogged determination at the doorstep meant he was finally able to bundle the puck over the line after numerous whacks at it. Things were looking bleak for Pardubice, and they were struggling to get that spark to tie the game up, but with just over two minutes to go, they got it. Pure brilliance by Jan Kolář, as he hustled his way past Jiří Marusak, eliminated Jiří Hanzlík from the play, before putting it on a plate for Pardubice captain, Petr Koukal to hammer home and send us to the extra period. Overtime was a non-entity, but come shootout time, Plzeň were lethal, as Jan Kovář and Martin Straka both scored, whilst Pardubice's efforts were stopped by Mazanec, giving Plzeň an unlikely, but extremely important road win.

Sparta go close against Litvinov
Sparta would have been delighted with their work going into the big derby on Sunday, as they comfortably dispatched of a lacklustre Litvinov outfit. Slovak forward Mario Bližňák had a three point night as Sparta won by a score of 6-1. They scored two goals in the first period, with Petr Tenkrát finishing at a tight angle, and Miroslav Forman scoring after a nifty tic-tac-toe play on the doorstep with Lukáš Luňák. The second period was quiet in terms of goals, with Bližňák giving the travellers a 3 goal lead at the second break, but it all kicked off between Angel Krstev and Jan Brejčák, as the pair both received 5+game penalties for roughing. The pair initially came to blows in front of Petr Franěk in the Litvinov goal whilst Sparta were on the powerplay, as Krstev took offence to repeated cross checks to his back by Brejčák, and the latter certainly had the better of the tussle. In the third period, Sparta pulled away to a 5-0 lead, with the fifth being an exceptionally soft one as Franěk made a regulation stop and dropped it at his feet. David Pojkar got a consolation goal for Litvinov just as their powerplay expired, but that was their lone piece of joy in the game, as their slide down the table continues, as they find themselves now firmly in the regulation places at the end of the gameday. Speaking after the game, Bližňák was coy about his teams chances in the derby, as he said, "I expect a balanced game like the previous derby was. It does not matter at all that we are at the top of the table and Slavia are at the bottom." (source)

Litvinov were leapfrogged by Slavia Praha, whose post-Christmas form has seen them win three in a row, and go into Sunday's derby full of confidence. Slavia scored six times for just the second time this season, with both of these occurrences coming in the past week. Dominik Furch added another shutout to his total for this season and Vladimír Růžička Sr. will be delighted with the turn in form of Tomáš Pospíšil, as the Kometa asset scored his fourth goal in three games, with his brace against Vitkovice. Furch was made to work hard for his shutout, making 34 saves and stopping a Jan Káňa penalty shot which came early in the first period. Slavia had a rotten first period, taking five minor penalties to give Vitkovice all the chances they needed to score, but Furch was equal to them all. Once Slavia had stopped their march to the penalty box, they blew Vitkovice away, as they scored four times in the second frame to take the game away. Pospíšil scored his first 45 seconds in, Michal Vondrka found him completely alone in front of Malek to tap home. Twelve minutes later, Pospíšil had his second, this time finishing off a 2 on 1, firing the puck into the net after receiving it from Jan Alinč. Vitkovice's defence was all at sea dealing with the speed of Slavia's forwards, and Slavia's third came after Tomáš Kůrka turned on the jets and burned past both defenceman, firing the wrister past Malek with 74 seconds to go in the second. Slavia had time to add one more before the break though, with the goal coming from the stick of Tomáš Kudělka, as Vladimír Růžička Jr's cross crease pass took a wicked deflection off of the Vitkovice defenceman. That spelled the end of Roman Malek's night, the veteran goalie let down by his defence, although Malek's save percentage was slightly worse for wear after two periods, as Slavia had scored 4 goals off of just 14 shots. Filip Šindelář couldn't do much better though, as Slavia scored twice more on just five shots, as Lukáš Krenželok scored on a penalty shot, eluding Šindelář's weak poke check attempt to score on the backhand, before Michal Vondrka closed the scoring, adding to his two assists on the night by scoring a marvellous goal, easing past Ctirad Ovčačík before scoring on his backhand. Brilliant by Slavia. Worrying by Vitkovice.

HC Mountfield moved up to third place in the standings with an impressive victory at the Zimní stadion Luďka Čajky against Zlín. The hosts outplayed Mountfield for a large part of the game, but Jakub Kovář had another solid performance in goal, making 30 saves. After a scoreless first, Ondřej Veselý got Zlín on the board with a rebound goal after great board play behind the net by Roman Vlach and loan signing Marek Melenovsky. Mountfield would come back though, and it was Jakub Langhammer and Milan Gulaš who were the heroes for the Budvar boys. Langhammer scored his first, assisted by Gulaš just over a minute after Zlin went ahead, as the puck seemed to trickle through both of the Zlin defencemen's legs, before falling at the stick of Langhammer who rifled past Sedláček. Zlin thought they had retaken the lead late in the second period, but a Petr Čajánek goal was washed out for high sticks. In the third, Mountfield took the lead for the first time, with Gulaš scoring a powerplay goal, assisted by Langhammer, but Zlin tied the game up a couple of minutes later, with Marek Melenovsky scoring his first goal in blue and yellow since returning on loan from Karlovy Vary, somehow jamming the puck home whilst being wrestled to the ice by both of the Mountfield defencemen. However, it wasn't to be for the Moravians, as with just three minutes to go, Langhammer scored his second of the night, finishing off a two on one break with Jiří Šimánek, somehow managing to get the puck out of his feet before firing top shelf, and giving the points to the České Budějovice outfit.

In mid table action, the white tigers of Liberec put the knights of Kladno to the sword, thrashing them by a score of 8-2 at home. Kladno's much maligned goaltending issues reared their head again, as neither Cikánek, who was pulled after conceding five on twenty, or Chabera, who conceded three on fourteen showed any signs of keeping Kladno in the game. Liberec had eight different scorers, and scored four times in the second frame, but the star of the show, once again, was captain Petr Nedvěd who went 1+3 on the night. Credit must also be given to Jiří Moravec, who had three assists. Liberec gave Kladno a five minute powerplay in the second, as David Štich was tossed for the game for a 5+game penalty for roughing, as he beat the you know what out of Jiří Bicek after the Slovakian forward had collided with Marek Pinc. However, Liberec ended up scoring twice on Kladno's extended powerplay. Kladno's slide towards the relegation playoffs leaves them with a cushion of a solitary point over Kometa and Slavia, who are in 10th and 11th respectively. All the optimism that the club had at the start of the year seems to be slowly fading.

Subdued celebrations after their 8-2 victory
photo: Vladimir Jína
Třinec continued their march for an automatic playoff spot, as they closed the gap on sixth placed Zlin with a comfortable 4-1 win against Karlovy Vary. The Steelers took the lead just 80 seconds in as new signing Tomáš Klouček scored on his debut after leaving KHL side Lev Poprad, just signed put the road side into the lead. Třinec should have been given a goal a few minutes after their first, as Lukas Mensator somehow got away with kicking his goal off on a breakaway. However, nine minutes later, Třinec had doubled their advantage with another goal from their defence corps, as Martin Lojek beat  Mensator with a rebound effort on the powerplay. Another two goals in the second period by Třinec finished the game off, as Jiří Polanský and Tomáš Klimenta scored, with Miroslav Hořava picking up his third assist of the night on Klimenta's goal. Karlovy Vary had got the game back to 2-1 in the first period with a goal from captain Petr Kumstat, but they were severely outclassed by the defending champions, and they remain in 13th place.

The final game of the night was a bottom of the table clash between Kometa Brno and Mlada Boleslav, whereby the second city side scraped by, condemning Mlada to their fifth straight defeat. Mlada did manage to get a point of the game as they took it to a shootout, but in another tight game, their offence only mustered a solitary goal. Mlada took the lead in the first period through Jiří Cetkovský, as he scored on a delayed powerplay goal after brilliant work by Zdeněk Bahenský. This goal came after Michal Valent had stopped a  Tomáš Divíšek penalty shot, and made a number of quality saves, 38 on the night. Brno tied the game in the second period with a Tomáš Svoboda powerplay goal, scoring on a rebound. The game petered out in the final minutes, and come shootout time, Sasu Hovi took over replacing Trvaj, and the Finnish netminder stopped both of Mlada's efforts, whilst Divíšek and Dlouhy scored for Brno, giving them the two points.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Slavia thrash Kometa in ill-tempered affair

Slavia Praha reclaimed 12th place in the Extraliga table as they put in one of their best performances of the season to down Kometa Brno in a game littered with troubles, on and off the ice. Slavia, who have the worst home record in the league gained in confidence as the game went on, and they were aided by the conga to the penalty box by the Brno players, whose discipline during the game was non existent. A big crowd was expected at the o2, and a fair number of Kometa fans made the journey from Brno, although their teams frustrations boiled over into the stands, as a piece of plexi glass was broken by the Kometa fans, and unconfirmed rumours of violence outside of the arena resulted in a rather tense atmosphere around the rink.

Slavia celebrating in front of the Sešívaní
Photo: Pavel Vrtiška
Tomáš Pospíšil was the hero for Slavia, scoring two goals and assisting on another. Pospíšil, a Kometa asset who is back at Slavia on loan was a thorn in Brno's side all net, finishing after great work by Jan Alinč in the first period, before firing a one timer from the point high past Jiří Trvaj on the powerplay in the third. Slavia jumped out to a three goal load in the second period only for Kometa to peg them back and for the score to be 3-2 at the second intermission. This was after killing off a five minute powerplay for the second time in two games, as Jakub Svoboda was tossed from the game for a kneeing major, colliding knee on knee with Slavia forward Michal Vondrka. Leoš Čermák scored the first Brno goal, a goal which was reviewed for a good five minutes before the referee finally confirmed it was a goal, and Radek Dlouhy scored the second, leaving it all to play for in the third period. However, Slavia took the game away from Kometa in the third period, scoring three goals to take the three points. Tomáš Kůrka scored the fourth, a nifty breakaway move after he caught the defence flatfooted, and eight minutes later, Vladimír Růžička Jr. scored one of the strangest goals he'll ever score as he deflected the Brno defenceman's pass past Trvaj. Pospíšil's second goal capped the game off for Slavia, leaving the Sešívaní in joyous spirits as they head into a tough set of games. Slavia's first win in four games is welcome relief to head coach Vladimír Růžička Sr., who has started to come under pressure from disgruntled Slavia fans. His assistant, Jiří Čelanský speaking after the game said, "After a series of losses we played a decent game, and we are glad that we have for the first time this season, scored six goals at home." All in all it was a great game between two teams that could both be playing in the relegation playoffs come March, and the growing rivalry between Kometa and Slavia continues to intensify.

 Martin Růžička put in another solid performance
photo: Marian Ježowicz 
The night's televised game saw a short benched Pardubice continue to put pressure on Sparta by taking the three points at the Werk Arena against Třinec. The Steelers opened the scoring with a Lukáš Bolf powerplay goal, but Pardubice battled back in the third period, scoring three times in the final frame. Radovan Somik tied the game at one, and both teams went back and forth before Jan Stary fired a slapshot that was too hot for Peter Hamerlik to handle and trickled into the back of the net with just 86 seconds to go. Jan Kolář added an empty netter in the final thirty seconds to seal the points for Pardubice. Petr Koukal put in a captains performance assisting on the second and third goals, and Martin Růžička put in another good performance making 29 saves. If he keeps this form up then he certainly could be knocking on the door of the Czech Republic squad come World Championship time.

After their late autumn slump, Zlin put in a polished performance at home against Vitkovice to keep them in contention for a top six spot. They commanded the game against the Ostrava outfit, limiting them to just 21 shots, which young shot stopper Jakub Sedlaček stopped with relative ease, although he did get clattered for his troubles as Viktor Ujčík ran over the netminder in the third period, luckily not hurting either player. A shutout on home ice is just the confidence boost that the Moravian side needs going into the home stretch. Petr Leška, putting in another impressive season for the club he's spent almost all his career at, opened the scoring, pouncing on a juicy rebound from Roman Málek. This would be the solitary goal in the game until with just seven seconds left, big summer signing Petr Čajánek scored past Malek, finishing the play after a brilliant pass from Petr Holik, who put in another impressive display after being away with the Czech Republic Under-20's in Alberta.

Tomáš Vošvrda was the hero for Liberec as his 46 shot shutout cemented the White Tigers' hold on fifth place, and giving Jiří Kalous a major headache in regards to his starting goaltender. On the other hand, it was another loss for Litvinov, despite having captain Martin Ručinský back in the lineup. With this loss, Litvinov are slowly but surely being sucked into the relegation positions in the Extraliga table. The game was deadlocked at 0-0 until the 34th minute, when Lukáš Vantuch's weak shot from the left wing completely eluded Martin Volke, who had made a brilliant breakaway save just minutes before. It was a shocker of a goal to concede, and it seemed to take the wind out of Litvinov's sails. The final period was a bit of a non-affair, but Liberec got their insurance marker with a minute to go, as Milan Bartovič's low slapshot had too much mustard for Volke, finishing off the play after great play by Jaroslav Kudrna.

It was top against bottom at the Tesla Arena, and Sparta Praha took the three points away from the basement boys Mlada Boleslav. However, the league leaders didn't have the easy evening that many would have predicted, as Mlada put up a spirited display, only going down by 2-0. Sparta only had thirty shots on Michal Valent, who with this performance may have got the starters job off of Jaroslav Hübl. In fact, Mlada held Sparta until the 51st minute, when who else but Petr Ton broke through the Mlada defence at the blue line, and fired a wicked slapshot which beat Valent low on the stick side. Tomáš Pöpperle made 24 saves for his shutout, but don't be fooled by the low numbers, as Mlada had two clear breakaways, as well as a great 2 on 1 chance which Pöpperle denied, demonstrating his lightning lateral quickness. Sparta sealed the game with just over two minutes to go as Petr Tenkrát scored, with Ton and Angel Krstev assisting, the second assist of the night for the latter.

Karlovy Vary have been in good form as of late, but they didn't have enough to beat 4th placed HC Mountfield. In what was František Výborný's 700th game as a coach, Mountfield gave the coach something to celebrate as they took the three points with a 4-2 victory. The Budvar boys got goals from four different scorers as Lukáš Květoň, Jakub Langhammer, Peter Mikus and Pavel Kašpařík all lit the lamp. Karlovy Vary were always chasing the game after Květoň's fourth minute goal, and although Vaclav Skuhravy scored in the second to tie the game up, they just didn't have the legs for it. Jakub Kovář made 30 saves for the victory.

Plzeň were without star forward Tomáš Vlasák, but they sent a message to leaders Sparta, as they thrashed Kladno 7-2 on the road putting in a brilliant display. Jan Chabera was pulled for the second game in a row as Plzeň scored three goals on eight shots in the first ten minutes, with Michal Dvořák, Jan Kovář, and Vaclav Pletka finding the back of the net. Both Kovář and Radek Duda scored three points for Kladno, as they added a further two goals in each period to easily dispatch of the Knights, who are falling into the relegation race. Adam Svoboda only had 24 shots to deal with, stopping 22 in his sides win which leaves them three points behind Sparta with a game in hand.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Kometa stun Mountfield as Slavia's woes continue

In the first full gameday since the turn of the year, Friday night saw six games of Extraliga action, with table toppers Sparta Praha defeating Oceláři Třinec in a penalty shootout thriller on Thursday at the Tesla Arena.

Sparta veteran Petr Ton scored the shootout winner for the Holešovice men, who will be disappointed that they didn't take all three points against a mid-table Třinec outfit, let alone after leading 4-1 at the second intermission. David Květoň scored two goals in the third period before Radek Bonk tied the game at 4-4 with just 33 seconds remaining, leaving the Sparta fans stunned. However, the league leaders managed to regroup and sent the Steelers packing with a solitary point.

 Tomáš Divíšek celebrating Kometa's third
Photo: Michal Eger 
In the TV game, Kometa Brno stunned title contenders České Budějovice with backup and pensioner Jiři Trvaj stopping all 32 shots the Budvar boys could muster. After a scoreless first period, former Slavia Praha forward Miroslav Holec opened the scoring, beating Jakub Kovář on his shortside. Six minutes later, Kometa doubled their advantage as they proved that winning faceoffs are key as Jozef Kováčik hammered home from the point. Renaissance man Tomáš Divíšek scored to make it 3-0, before Hynek Zohorna closed the scoring half way through the period, finishing off a divine piece of team play on a 3 on 1 break. Kometa made it difficult for themselves in the late going, as Jiří Vašíček was tossed early from the game with eight minutes to go for a brutal elbow on David Kuchejda, but České Budějovice failed to break Trvaj's shutout to the delight of the fans packed into the Kajot Arena. Speaking after the game, Kováčik, who had an assist on the final Brno goal praised the performance of team mate Roman Erat. "Too bad that they do not give three assists, as Roman Erat who orchestrated the event, would have certainly deserved it."

 Martin Heřman getting hauled down on a breakaway
photo: Milan Podpera 
In another clash with implications at both ends of the table, Plzeň comfortably dispatched of Litvínov 4-1 at home. 7940 packed into the ČEZ Aréna to witness Marty Straka's boys move to within three points of Sparta at the summit of the Extraliga. Adam Svoboda was faultless in the Plzeň, seemingly getting back to the form which made him a league winning starter in 2008, as he stopped all but one of the 33 shots Litvinov fired at him. It is certainly surprising that Plzeň were outshot by Litvinov, but Svoboda was up for the task. Martin Volke had a decent game for the away side, although he would want the first goal back as Jiří Marušák's point shot somehow squirted between him and the post and trickled into the goal. Plzeň started to pull away in the second as the hosts doubled their advantage with Martin Heřman scoring a penalty shot after being pulled down on a breakaway, finishing expertly with a backhand over Volke's shoulder, and then just 22 seconds later Jan Stránský scored after great work by Nicholas Johnson behind the goal to stretch Plzeň's advantage to three. Litvinov would finally get on the board, with a soft goal on Svoboda as a Martin  Jenáček wrist shot from the left wing eluded Svoboda's blocker, but it wouldn't have a major bearing on the game as the third petered out before Radek Duda scored an empty netter to finish off events.

Vitkovice strengthened their push for a top six finish, easily dispatching basement boys Mlada Boleslav at home. The Ostrava outfit relied on goals from four different scorers to take the game away from Mlada, whose inability to put together good defence and decent offence in a game continues to haunt them. Australian born junior Nathan Walker had two assists in the game, the first coming on the opening goal which was scored by Juraj Štefanka. In a game littered by penalties, both teams powerplays failed to shine, as no goals were scored on the man advantage. The goal of the game was the second Vitkovice goal which came in the second period, as Petr Pohl's dogged board work was rewarded with a goal, as he cut to the net from the left wing and beat Jaroslav Hübl. Vitkovice scored twice more in the third period, and Mlada eventually broke Roman Malek's shutout bid as Milan Mikulik got his own rebound to score. Viktor Ujčík was desperate to get himself on the Zlata Helma videos as his between-the-legs attempt on a breakaway almost eluded Hübl.

Pardubice showed that they are still title contenders, blowing away Kladno 3-1 in the first period to eventually take the game 5-2. Peter Jánský scored twice, and Jan Buchtele had two assists as Pardubice cemented third spot in the standings. Jan Chabera had a game to forget for Pardubice as he was yanked after conceding 4 goals on 13 shots, and Pardubice almost got on the board straight after as they hit the post just seconds after Cikanek started his relief bid. Pavel Patera got a goal back for Kladno before they had a goal ruled out for netminder interference at the end of the second period. However, Kladno couldn't build on the momentum and Petr Koukal scored in the third to make it 5-2.

Karlovy Vary finally leapfrogged Slavia for 12th place in the standings, as they continue their impressive form of late as they dispatched of Zlín 4-1 on home ice. Dusan Salficky had another great game for Karlovy Vary, making 31 saves. Zlin threatened early on but the first period finished scoreless, although the hosts lost Petr Gřegořek in the first period as he was tossed from the game, picking up two misconduct penalties for protesting after a shocker of a call by the referees. Travis Gawryletz and František Skladaný scored for Karlovy Vary in the second to make it 2-0, before another two goals in the third made it 4-0. Zlín got a late consolation through Martin Hamrlik in the final minute, but all it did was spoil Salficky's shutout.

Hatrick hero Petr  Nedvěd
photo: Jaroslav Appeltauer
"Every goal was for me and the team is important" were the words of hatrick hero Petr Nedvěd as slumping Liberec got back to winning ways, defeating Slavia Praha 4-1 on home ice. Nedvěd scored a goal in each period as Liberec got revenge for last years playoff defeat and took the game to a woeful Slavia side, who have now lost three straight. Nedvěd's first came two minutes in as he took the puck from his own zone, all the way into Slavia's zone unopposed, before firing a wrist shot that handcuffed Dominik Furch and scored the twine. It was undeserved but Slavia got the game level as Lukáš Krenželok beat Marek Pinc with a wicked wrister in the second minute of the second period, but that was all the joy that Slavia were going to get. It wasn't the worst of performances for the Prague outfit, as they mustered 36 shots on Pinc and hit the post in the third period, but the Liberec shotshopper had another brilliant game in his comeback season. Nedvěd gave Liberec the advantage mid way through the period, before scoring his hatrick with five minutes to go. A true captains performance from the former NHLer who like a fine wine seems to be getting better with age.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Czechs down Slovakia to finish fifth.

In a game that had more implications for next year, the Czech Republic finished their junior campaign for 2011/12 on a high by defeating their next door neighbours by a score of 5-2. Whilst on the surface, there was very little to play for, it was a game that both teams would have wanted to win, as the victor would be seeded with Latvia and Switzerland in their group, rather than the U.S.A, making progress to the quarter finals that much easier next time around. The Slovaks were always facing an uphill task, which was made all the more difficult when top scorer and Detroit Red Wings second round draft pick Tomáš Jurčo, was ruled out of the game following a knock he picked up in the quarter final against Finland.

Petr Mrázek (#2) put in another stellar
night's work in the Czech goal
Photo: Majo Srnik
Slovakia had a woeful start to the first period, which head coach Ernest Bokroš claimed was their worst period in the tournament, clearly missing the spark that Jurčo gave the team. 1994 born Marko Daňo filled the void on the top line, but he struggled to get into the game in the early going. Five minutes in the shots were already 7-0, with the Slovaks forming a queue to be the next one to sit in the penalty box. Eventually the Czechs were going to make their chances count, and Radek Faksa fired a bullet over Juraj Šimboch's shoulder. The Czechs would score twice more in the first period, with Zlín forward Petr Holík and Vojtěch Mozík getting on the board, with Mozík's goal coming on a two minute 5 on 3 PP for the Czechs.

The teams traded a goal apiece in the second period, with the Slovaks making it a two goal deficit mid way through the period. After killing off yet another penalty, Miloš Bubela finally got the Slovaks on the board, finishing off after good work by Martin Ďaloga. However, any momentum that Slovakia gained from the goal was quickly wiped out as Dominik Uher reestablished the Czechs three goal advantage just over two minutes later.

The Czechs set the tone in the first period, but allowed
Slovakia back into it in the third
Photo: Majo Srnik
The Czechs seemed to take their foot off the gas in the third, and it showed as Slovakia started to get back into the game, outshooting their opponents 17-11 in the final frame, but it wouldn't be enough for them to grab fifth place. With Marek Tvrdon in the box the Czechs scored their fifth and final goal of the night, as Tomáš Filippi fired past Šimboch, and five minutes later the Slovaks closed out the scoring, with Matúš Chovan scoring his fifth goal of the tournament, a team high.

After the game, Ernest Bokroš praised his team highly. Talking to, he cited his teams lack of individual talent, but commended how the team came together, especially under the guidance of captain Tomáš Matoušek.  Bokroš has a right to be pleased with his teams performances, as they reached the quarter finals for the first time since the great 2009 team featuring the likes of Tomáš Tatar, Richard Pánik and the star of the show Jaroslav Janus, advanced to the semi finals before falling to Sweden. Former Detroit Red Wings defenceman Jiří Fischer, assistant coach for the Czech Republic once again praised Petr Mrázek's performance in goal, especially when Slovakia were pressing in the final period.

"If someone had said before the tournament that we would finish fifth, I would take that without a doubt"

Both teams can be pleased with their showing
at this year's World Juniors
Photo: Majo Srnik
These were the words of head Czech head coach Miroslav Přerost following the game (source), and he has a right to be positive. The Czechs may still be reeling from their heartbreaking loss to Russia, but after playing in the relegation playoffs last year, a fifth placed finish will certainly get the momentum rolling for next year, where they should be with star prospect Martin Frk, who pulled out of the tournament whilst recovering from concussion.

Martin Gernát of Slovakia, a draft pick of the Edmonton Oilers had the same opinion as Přerost for his teams sixth placed finish.

"Sixth place is positive for Slovak hockey."

"After three years out, we played in the quarter finals, which is good."

Gernát is one of the few Slovak players eligible to return to play in 2013 in Ufa, and Slovak will need every ounce of his experience if they are to stay out of the relegation playoffs, where they are guaranteed a tough group featuring two of the semi finalists, as well as the U.S.A, whilst the Czechs will be hoping to go one step further and reach the semi finals for the first time since 2005.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Goaltending masterclass ends in heartache for the Czech Republic

Petr Mrázek gained plaudits from all across the hockey world for his performance against the United States in the Round Robin, but even he couldn't lead them to victory over Russia, as the defending champions scraped their way to victory in a thrilling match up in Calgary. The Russian overtime hero was defenceman Grigori Zheldakov who pounced on a loose puck in the Czech zone, and wired it past the Ottawa 67's goaltender and sent the Russian players into raptures. In what turned into a great goaltending between the aforementioned Mrázek and Russia's 17 year old goalie Andrei Vasilevski, with the former making 43 stops, and the latter 39 in a 2-1 victory for the Russians.

Tomáš Filippi and Tomáš Hyka dejected after
Grigori Zheldakov's winner
photo: Toronto Sun
The game was thrilling, with both teams going back and forth, and both goalies making save after save. The flashpoint came in overtime, as the Russians took the puck into the Czech zone after killing a penalty. Nikita Kucherov's shot from the left wing was blocked, but in his follow through, he high sticked Slavia Praha prospect Daniel Krejčí below the left cheek, sending the Czech player down to the ice holding his face. By the letter of the law it was not a penalty, although whether or not the play should have been stopped for a facial injury is another matter. Krejčí was left heartbroken by the defeat, although he would still show his distaste for the Russian side after the game. Due to the Russians having the puck in the offensive zone, the play continued, and two Czech players were sucked into the left corner, creating all the time and space for Kucherov to find Zheldakov with an inch perfect pass, and his shot scorched the twine. It was heartache for the Czechs, who, after getting off to a slow start to the game, gained more confidence as they went on. In the third period they forced a number of stops from Vasilevski, who, like the Czechs, improved as the game went on.

The Russians now face Canada in the
semi finals, in a rematch of last years final
photo: Toronto Sun
In the early going it was the Russians who had the better of the play, as Evgeni Kuznetsov, the captain of the Russian side somehow managed to fluff a breakaway chance after leaving Mrazek for dead with a series of dekes, but he contrived to shoot the puck out of play. The Russians started double shifting their top two units very early into the game, and whilst Kuznetsov, Gusev and Kosov were looking impressive, two of the top prospects for the 2011 draft, Nail Yakupov and Mikhail Grigorenko floundered under the spotlight; although the latter was returning from injury. After being outshot 16-5 in the first period, the Czechs came out in the second period with a spring in their step, and just fifteen seconds in went close to breaking the deadlock. It took seven minutes before the scoring would finally start, and the Czechs took the lead. The breakout star of Czech hockey in 2011, Tomáš Hertl was the architect of the goal, as he outworked the Russian defenceman behind the net, and his wraparound pass went right onto the tape of Ottawa Senators draft pick Jakub Culek, who calmly finished past Vasilevski. However, the Russians weren't going to lie down, and they started to get back into the game soon after the goal. Daniel Krejčí was denied by Vasilevski after deking his way through the whole Russian team, but a matter of seconds later, Daniil Apalkov took the puck up to the other end of the ice, and with no other options, wired a wrist shot which eluded Mrázek, and lit the lamp for the Russians. Whilst you could hardly blame Mrázek for conceding, after some of his saves earlier in the game, he would certainly want it back. However, would it shame the young man's confidence? Of course not. As time expired in the second period, he showed that he was still in this game, as he somehow stuck a toe out, denying Yaroslav Kosov with a sprawling pad save, giving his now trademark fist pump for good measure.

The stars of the show: Andrei
Vasilevski and Petr Mrázek
Photo: Toronto Sun
The third period was bound to be a good one, and the two teams certainly didn't disappoint, with play going from one end to the other, and both teams having countless chances to finish the game. Both goalies knew that this would be twenty minutes of overtime. Mrázek set the tone with a brilliant paddle stop early in the period, reaching behind him and blocking the shot with the blade of his stick, but not long after, Vasilevski somehow got a pad to a Dmitrij Jaškin's wide open one timer. The young Slavia forward could only hold his head in his hands after being denied what was a certain goal. Mrázek was not to be outdone, as straight off the draw, the Russians got the puck to Kosov, who wired a wrist shot which Mrázek flashed his glove out and somehow plucked the puck out of the air. Still, Vasilievski would do exactly the same, denying Tomáš Filippi with a similar glove save. Both teams were seemingly content with heading to overtime, but with just 48 seconds remaining the Czechs had their chance, as Kucherov went to the box for high sticking. The Czechs couldn't convert, and soon after the penalty expired in overtime, Zheldakov put the game to bed.

For Mrázek, the cult hero of this years edition of the World Juniors after his erratic celebrations during the USA game, the defeat was tough to take. "It was a pretty good game for everybody on the team," Mrzaek said. "But we lost so we can't talk about it being our best game. It's difficult, but it's just hockey. Sometimes you have to take it." (Source). For the Czechs, they will now face rivals Slovakia in the 5th placed playoff on Wednesday in a game that neither team will want to lose, and who knows what Mrázek will have in store for us in his final game of the tournament.

Monday, 2 January 2012

Slovaks rage at referees. Finland scores eight to advance

It was always going to be a tough task for the Slovak team to conquer the powerhouse Finnish offence, but their cause certainly wasn't helped by a rash of poor refereeing calls which by the third period had all but killed off the game. Matúš Chovan, the hatrick hero against the Swiss in the final game of the round robin was thrown out of the game in the third period for 5+game boarding call. However, replays showed that Miro Aaltonen turned after Chovan had committed to the hit, and the resulting injury caused to Aaltonen was his own doing. This call put the nail in the Slovaks coffin, as they had come inches to bringing the game back to a one goal deficit minutes before hand. The Finnish scored twice on the major powerplay, with one of the goals coming on a 5 on 3 as Peter Trška sat in the box after picking up a minor penalty.

Matúš Chovan celebrates scoring Slovakia's first goal
The Slovaks gave a spirited performance, certainly not afraid of the highly touted Finnish top line, featuring the Granlund brothers (Mikael and Markus) and Teemu Pulkkinen, but in the early going it was Buffalo prospect Joel Armia who set the tone, as just four minutes in, his cross crease pass was cruelly deflected off the stick of Matej Bene and past goaltender Juraj Šimboch. The Slovaks ran into penalty trouble soon after, with young Marko Daňo and Bene ending up in the box, giving the Finnish 58 seconds of 5 on 3 to work with, but the top PK pairing of the two Oilers prospects, Martin Gernát and Martin Marinčin standing firm, the former taking a point shot off of the top of his helmet, but not missing a shift. The penalty kill seemed to swing the momentum in the Slovaks direction, as not soon after they tied the game, with Chovan getting his fourth goal of the tournament, capitalising on a Jani Hakanpää, and Richárd Mráz's fine work to get the puck to the net. The Tatranski Vlci forward was one of the best Slovak players on the ice in Calgary. Things were looking peachy from the Slovaks, and they had the run of play, but only eight seconds after Mráz's goal, the Finns went up the other end and scored, as Šimboch dropped a simple glove save, and it was Roope Hämäläinen who was the first to the loose puck. Once again the Slovaks marched to the box in the latter stages of the first, but Slovakia's penalty kill continued to sparkle, with Mráz beating Sami Aittokallio all ends up with a cracking slapshot, only to watch his effort rattle the pipes and stay out of the net. However, the Slovaks would go into the first intermission on an equal footing, as with only 29 seconds remaining in the first frame, whilst on the powerplay, Marek Tvrdon, the Detroit Red Wings draft pick scored his third of the tournament, capitalising on great work by Miloš Bubela on the boards, and his one timer wired past Aittokallio.

Richard Mráz rides high after scoring
It was Slovakia's inability to stay out of the box in the second which scuppered their chances, as they simply could not get any momentum going. However, the referees did not aid Slovakia's cause, and in the lead up to Mikael Granlund's fabulous strike on the powerplay, a high stick on Daňo went uncalled to the youngsters fury, and just a minute later, Slovak captain Tomáš Matoušek was hauled down in the neutral zone off the puck, only for the play to go the other way, and Markus Granlund to fire the puck past Šimboch. It was not  Šimboch's best night, as the fifth goal went straight through his five hole, which saw the introduction of Dominik Riečický to the night's proceedings, but he only kept his clean sheet for a matter of seconds, as 1995 born Aleksander Barkov scored with a lovely deke past the HK Orange 20 goalie. At 6-2 it was looking bleak for the Slovaks, but with six minutes left in the frame they got a goal back, as the impressive Mráz finished off a great team move, comprising of a  Marinčin point shot, a Chovan deflection and a Mráz shot, leaving Aittokallio stranded on the other side of the net.

Finland now face Sweden in the semi final
The Slovaks knew they had to get an early goal in the third period if they wanted to get back into the game, and that's what they got, as five minutes into the period Aittokallio was feeling generous. In what was great interplay between Daňo and Martin Ďaloga, the latter ended up with the puck near the left face off dot, and with no other options around him, fired a weak wristshot on goal, which the Finnish goalie simply didn't react to, and it ended up in the net. The Slovaks went oh so close to making it a one goal game, as Michal Toman was stonewalled by Aittokallio, showing his true form. However, with only eight and a half minutes to go, Chovan went to hit Aaltonen at the half boards, only for the Finn to turn his back and end up with his head against the boards. Chovan was given a 5+game penalty, and the Slovak bench fumed. Frustration started to boil over as there were numerous bouts of shoving, and Tvrdon received a ten minute misconduct penalty for mouthing off at the officials. Donskoi and Pulkkinen netted for Finland on their powerplays. However, the Slovaks would finish their campaign on a high note, and "Tarzan Boy" would fill the Saddledome once more, as with just 28 seconds left, after more great work by Mráz, Marko Daňo, the 17 year old from Dukla Trenčín scored after a beautiful move, selling Aittokallio with his forehand deke before finishing on the back hand.

The score looked rather bleak at 8-5, but the Slovaks can be proud of their challenge, and while they may rue what might have been if the calls had gone for them instead of against them, they have nothing to be ashamed of. The standout players for Slovakia in the tournament have been Richard Mráz, the winger from Lev Poprad's farm team, top scorer and Slovakia's best prospect in a number of years, Tomáš Jurčo, who finished with seven points from five games, and the performances of  Marko Daňo in his entrance to the world stage. The Slovaks will have some holes to fill next year, as Marinčin, Jurčo, Matoušek and Adam Jánošík become ineligible, but with a number of great prospects in the pipeline, things are starting to look up for Slovakia's junior program

2011 in review

The Christmas carp has finally settled, and the New Year's festivities are coming to an end, and 2012 is set to be a thrilling one in the Czech Extraliga. 2011 brought us excitement, drama and most of all great hockey, and 2012 looks set to be another great year for Czech hockey.

However, things aren't all shipshape in the higher levels of the league, as the big news that came out of the Extraliga in mid December was that the Union of Extraliga teams tore up their agreement with the Czech Ice Hockey Association, as the teams ramp up their efforts to 'close' the Extraliga, which would result in the termination of the end of season playouts for the teams that finish in 11th-14th place in the table. It would also mean an end to the possibility of teams from the 1.liga getting promotion, which would certainly anger the likes of Slovan Ústečtí Lvi and Piráti Chomutov who are sitting atop of the Czech second tier, as well as making it that more difficult for one of the greats of Czech hockey's history, Dukla Jihlava, from getting back to the top division. No concrete agreements have been made yet, but it could prove to be a very difficult situation if the Czech Ice Hockey Association lose their control of the Extraliga.

The other story that has cropped up a few times in the latter months of 2011 is the possibility of teams from Slovakia joining the Czech Extraliga. Slovakia's national league has already been placed somewhat in the shadow by the presence of Lev Poprad in the KHL, and the bigger spending teams in the Slovak Extraliga, such as Slovan Bratislava and HC Košice are hoping to spread their wings. Slovan have been linked with joining the KHL numerous times, although it remains to be seen whether or not they could raise the funds necessary to compete, as well as the issue of having Lev Poprad just next door. It remains to be seen what will happen to Slovakia's biggest teams, as their proposal to the Czech Extraliga was resoundingly denied, receiving no support from the Czech teams at all, whose concerns at the prospect of more teams sharing from the Extraliga cup resulted in thirteen no votes, and one abstention sealing the Slovak clubs fate. For Slovan, it appears that they will either have to stump up for the KHL, or remain as a big fish in the Slovak Extraliga, which may not be sustainable, especially as the rent on their brand new arena won't be cheap. Another option is joining the EBEL, which has already expanded into Hungary, Slovenia, the Czech Republic and Croatia, but at the time of writing, there are no major inroads being made in this area.

Candles for the Czech trio in Staroměstské náměstí, Prague
2011 was a brutal year for hockey fans around the world, with the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl tragedy impacting every hockey fan in the world. The Czechs lost three of their greatest players in modern years, as Jan Marek, Karel Rachůnek and Josef Vašíček perished on that fateful flight. Slovakia was also struck by the disaster, as Pavol Demitra, the former captain of the national team before his retirement after the 2011 World Championships lost his life. Mourning took place all across the two countries, with remembrance services taking place in numerous towns and cities.

It was the culmination of what had been a terrible year for fans of Slovakian hockey, as the juniors flattered to deceive in the World Juniors, with arguably their best team for a number of years failing to reach the quarter finals, whilst on the biggest stage that Slovakia has played since their independence, they flopped at their World Championships, disappointing the fans in the brand new Apollo Arena and being sent into the relegation rounds. It marked the end of the road for Canadian Glen Hanlon, who could not repeat his relative success during his tenure as the Belarussian head coach for Slovakia, and the Slovak Federation moved quickly to appoint two time Russian Superliga winner,Vladimír Vůjtek as their head coach. In his first challenge as coach, Vůjtek steered the Slovakian team to the Deutschland Cup, their first victory in the tournament since 2006. 2011 could have been a great year for Slovakian hockey, and a great chance to build on their momentum after some of the performances during the 2010 Olympics, but the signs of life may be there for the Slovaks, and their spirited performances in this years edition of the World Junior Championships may be a boost that the national program desperately needs. In May it will be ten years since the great team of 2002 defeated the Russians in Gothenburg to win the World Championships.

Handed a horrible group in the World Juniors, it was no surprise that the Czech juniors ended up in the relegation rounds in 2011, and they scraped their way to survival. After three years out of the job, Alois Hadamczik returned to the head coach position of the National Team, replacing Slavia Praha head coach Vladimír Růžička, who left the position as his contract expired on a high, after capturing the 2010 World Championship. However, the Czechs were in no position to repeat this glory, getting outclassed by Sweden in the semi finals, but did end up with a bronze medal to their name as they beat the Russians in the consolation game. As the year concluded, the spotlight is back on the juniors of the Czech Republic, and although they are not the force they once were, the Czechs still know how to put on a performance, as their defeat of the United States showed that they still have a sting in the tail, as well as some characters, as Petr Mrázek fist pumped his way to victory, gaining numerous fans in the process.
Radek Bonk hoisting the Czech title.
Photo: Jan Belej

Domestically, the Czech Extraliga playoffs were as thrilling as ever, as Oceláři Třinec claimed their first ever title since their inception in 1929. The top seeds, with former NHLers Radek Bonk, Lukáš Krajíček, Václav Varaďa and Ladislav Kohn to their name. However, the man that stole the show was Martin Růžička, whose form in the playoffs earned him a contract with Amur Khabarovsk for the 2011-12 season. Růžička broke numerous records last season, as he smashed the record for goals in consecutive games, putting up a 10 game goal streak in March, as well as breaking Zigmund Palffy's playoff scoring record, as Růžička put up 33 points (17+16) in just 18 games. However, it wasn't all plain sailing for Třinec, as they were behind by 3 games to 1 in their semi final series with unlikely contenders Slavia Praha, as well as being down 3-1 in game six, but each time they managed to battle back, not least in game five, as Růžička scored four goals, to go with his sixteen in the seven game series. In the final, they dispatched of Vitkovice 4-1, the Ostrava club's second straight trip to the final, and their second straight defeat.

The 2011-12 season started with the league as competitive as ever, but after clearing out the old (David Výborný, Martin Ručinský and Ondřej Kratěna all moved to pastures new), Sparta Praha ended 2011 with a rather comfortable lead at the top of the standings, whilst their cross city rivals, still smarting from the losses of their best players over the past four seasons ended the season in 12th place. Slavia were shut out at home in four of five home games during November, and the o2 Arena is a very empty place these days. Sparta have finally found the goalie they have been searching for ever since Petr Briza hung up his blocker, as after a few indifferent years, Tomáš Pöpperle seems to be entering his prime, and with a goals against average of less than two, he is giving Sparta a chance in every game they play. Defending champions Třinec, rocked by numerous losses to the KHL sit in seventh place at the turn of the year, suffering from inconsistent goaltending from their tandem of Peter Hamerlik and Martin Vojtek. The contenders to Sparta this year come in the form of České Budějovice, who have added Aleš Kotalík to their line up, and are back stopped by young Jakub Kovář, whose getting better with each season. Pardubice are also up there, as well as Plzeň, who still have Martin Straka on their roster. At the bottom of the table, it is a similar story as last year, as Mlada Boleslav end the season propping up the table. The additions of Výborný and former Zlín ace Jaroslav Balaštík has given them a bit more of an attacking bite, but they simply ship too many goals. Karlovy Vary are only a place above them, after a dreadful start to the year. The 2009 champions look a shadow of their former self, but their performances have improved since signing veteran goalie Dušan Salfický off of Litomerice.

All in all, 2012 promises to be a fantastic year, and I'll be here to blog about it!