(My playoff writing for the Extraliga will generally be consigned to writing articles for EuroHockey on alternate days, with the duties being duly shared with fellow blogger Derek O'Brien, whose blog (www.czechhockeyreport.blogspot.com) is a fantastic read)
Both home sides were victorious in the opening games of the quarter finals in the Czech Extraliga. Third seed Pardubice suffered an early setback but defeated Vitkovice, whilst a Michal Bulíř hatrick sealed the win for Liberec.
HC Pardubice 5 - 2 HC Vitkovice Steel
(Pardubice leads series 1-0)
It was a rematch of the 2010 Extraliga final as third seed Pardubice began their series with Vitkovice at the ČEZ Arena in Pardubice. In what is expected to be a close series, Pardubice sent a clear message, especially with their performance in the latter two periods. The first period was a very cagey one, as both teams tried to get a feel for one another. Pardubice had the better of the early exchanges, but five minutes into the first period it was the Ostrava based side who took the lead, as Vitkovice lit the lamp on their first shot of the game, defenceman Tomáš Kudělka getting the goal. This goal gave confidence to the Pardubice side, who tested Martin Růžička numerous times in the second half of the first period, with Karol Sloboda and Roman Szturc both being denied by the young netminder.
The second period began as the first had, with Pardubice's offence looking toothless, and with both teams cutting a path to the penalty box. Pardubice managed to kill off an extended 5 on 3 powerplay in the opening minutes, and this seemed to give some confidence to the team, and they were finally rewarded for their efforts with a Jaroslav Markovič goal. Pardubice's luck seemed to turn as Karol Sloboda was handed a delay of game penalty for firing the puck over the glass,although later replays appeared to show that it deflected off of a stick before sailing out of play. As is often the way, the powerplay was made to count, and Canadian forward Casey Borer fired home to give Pardubice the lead, and awaken the huge home support at the ČEZ Arena. It was beginning to turn into a rotten night for Vitkovice netminder Roman Málek, and his night didn't get any better as Pardubice put a third past him with just over three minutes to go in the third. Tomáš Zohorna had the puck on a 3 on 2 odd man rush for Pardubice, but he went it alone and fired the shot underneath the crossbar and lit the lamp.
Vitkovice needed to regroup in the second intermission, but any hopes that they had on getting back into the game were dashed in the 42nd minute, as Lukáš Radil scored to make it 4-1 Pardubice. Jan Káňa scored to cut the deficit to two, but only a minute later, Jaroslav Markovič scored his second of the game, which signalled the end of the night for Roman Málek. The veteran netminder, who played so well in last years playoffs cut a lost figure as he left the crease. Málek had conceded five goals on 26 shots, and that form is not going to aid Vitkovice's quest to upset the higher seeds. Filip Šindelář made eight saves in relief, but he couldn't help Vitkovice overcome the deficit, sending the vast majority of the capacity crowd at the ČEZ Arena home happy.
Speaking after the game, two goal Markovič was relieved to have broken the so called curse that Roman Málek held over the Pardubice team: "It is good that in the first game we broke this mindsight. Maybe it will continue. I don't really care what is said about the opposition netminder as I always try to play hard. We also had some luck".
Bili Tygri Liberec 4 - 3 HC MOUNTFIELD České Budějovice
(Liberec leads series 1-0)
Michal Bulíř was the toast of the Liberec faithful after Game 1, as his hatrick paved the way to a victory for the White Tigers. The hometown hero scored once in the first period and twice in the second period which helped Liberec jump out to a 4-1 lead at the end of the second period, and whilst České Budějovice pushed hard in the third period, Liberec managed to hold on for the victory.
Speaking after the game, Bulíř described it as the game of his life, although only at the age of 20, the Liberec native should have many more games ahead of him. His first goal came after Peter Mikuš had opened the scoring for Budějovice, as Bulíř fired from a tight angle and the puck ended up eluding the grasp of Jakub Kovář. This goal sparked the Liberec side into life, and whilst on the powerplay they took the lead, as Petr Nedvěd fired home to open his account for the playoffs, with Bulíř getting an assist on the play.
The second period was all Liberec, and once again, it was all about the hometown boy. Two and a half minutes into the second period he scored his second goal of the game, firing home just as Liberec's powerplay expired, and then in the 32nd minute he completed his hatrick and had the terraces singing his name. Bulíř picked up the puck and blazed down the left flank and fired a heavy shot which flew into the net and cemented his place in the history books as the youngest ever player to score a hatrick in the Extraliga playoffs.
Bulíř's hatrick goal also signalled the end of the line for promising netminder Jakub Kovář, who had conceded 4 goals on 20 shots in just over 30 minutes. This was only the fourth time that Kovář has been pulled during a game this season, and he cut a forlorn figure after the game. "I conceded four goals, which is too many. At the same time, I could barely do anything about them". Interestingly, he also stated "I would have stayed in, but the coach gave the order, so I had to leave". Pavel Kantor was only called into action six times in the remaining 28 minutes, and all signs point to Kovář getting the start in Friday's game, but whether or not his confidence will be intact is another matter.
Liberec clearly took their foot off the pedal in the final period, and it made for a much more nervy ending than it ought to have been. Aleš Kotalík and Roman Němeček scored in the opening four minutes of the third period, and Marek Pinc was called into action numerous times to save the day for Liberec. He made 34 saves in all.