Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Playoff Preview - Quarterfinals

(Was astounded to see that I haven't updated this in three weeks or so. Apologies for that. University has been rather hectic as of the moment, so I've struggled to keep tabs on the hockey world)

The regular season has come to a close, and it's once again playoff time in the Czech Extraliga. I can't hide my disappointment, as a Slavia fan, that I won't be able to watch the red and whites partake in this years edition, but I'm sure that it'll be another year of thrills, spills and surprises as the most exciting league in the world moves towards its conclusion.

We've also had the play-ins, which saw no surprises as Kometa Brno swept Kladno out of the best-of-five series, which brought Kladno's first season as the knights to a close, and one that showed clear signs of promise, but yet again it was another year of disappointment for the team, whilst in the other series Zlin mounted a comeback in the last two games of the series to take the game away from the 10th seeded Třinec and spare the blushes of the Moravian side. Last season's champions went through a whole bunch of struggles in the second half of the season, not helped by the loss of star defenceman Lukáš Krajíček, half way through the season. The 7th seeded Zlín face Plzen whilst it's a tough series against Sparta for Kometa.

With that in mind, here's my predictions for the playoff quarter-finals.

(1) HC Sparta Praha -v- (8) HC Kometa Brno
(Sparta wins the series 4-1)
Petr Ton in action against Slavia
Photo: Jan Benes hcsparta.cz
I think this will be a much more interesting series than it is on paper. Kometa may not boast the wealth of talent that Sparta has, but you can guarantee that they will come out and give it their all each time, especially when backed by the raucous masses at the Kajot Arena. In the end, Sparta should have just about too much for Kometa in this series, but I can see Kometa picking up a win, more than likely in Game 3 at the Kajot Arena. Interestingly, Kometa split the series with Sparta, with both teams winning two games, although Kometa's two wins came in a shootout and overtime respectively, but with a win at the Tipsport Arena to their name already, Sparta will be wise not to underestimate the team from the second city.

Key player for Sparta - Petr Ton
It's pretty academic when it comes to Sparta. If Petr Ton plays well, nine times out of ten Sparta will win. Coming off of his best ever point totals in the regular season at the age of 38, Ton is showing that he is not past it yet, and will be desperate to capture his first title in five years. Sparta's top line runs through Ton, and if he isn't firing, that line isn't firing.

Key player for Kometa - Jiří Trvaj
If Kometa are to win this series, the netminder will have to stand on his head, and that is something that Trvaj did not do in the series against Kladno. An 88.24% in the three games against Kladno did not shine Kometa's goaltending in the best light, and with an inconsistent at best Sasu Hovi as the backup, Trvaj really has to be the go to guy for Kometa. It remains to be seen whether or not he can backstop Kometa past the first seeds.

(2) HC Plzeň -v- (7) PSG Zlín
(Plzeň wins the series 4-2)
Second seeds Plzen will be desperate for success:
Photo: Milan Podpera
It's been another season of inconsistency for Zlín, whilst Plzeň must be thinking that their luck must turn around in the playoffs sooner rather than later. Marty Straka's men go into the playoffs rather low on confidence, after losing 4 of their last 5 games, but they will be favourites going into this series. Zlín struggled to get over a poor Třinec side in the play-ins, and their record in the playoffs over recent years hasn't exactly been brilliant. I do think that Zlin will win a game or two, as I think that they have enough quality up front to score against Plzeň, whilst Jakub Sedláček does have the talent to put in top level performances, but I can't see Zlín's defence being able to do enough to stop Plzeň from overpowering them.

Key player for Plzeň: Radek Duda
The man, the myth, the legend: Radek Duda. Never far from controversy, and who was just over a year ago playing in the 1.liga, Duda has taken the Extraliga by storm this year, and finished just two points behind eventual scoring champion Petr Nedved. Duda's 59 points in 51 games were integral to Plzeň's success, and if he can put it together in the playoffs, along with the accompanying cast of Jan Kovář and Martin Straka, then Plzeň will be able to roll over Zlin and make it to the semi finals.

Key player for Zlín: Petr Čajánek
Zlin's big summer signing has been a relative disappointment in the eyes of the Zlin faithful. A paltry 6 goals in 48 games was not what the Zlin fans expected of their home town hero. Čajánek has started to improve during the play-in series, scoring five points in five games, but he will need to be firing on all cylinders if Zlin want to advance. With Čajánek firing, Zlin's top line packs a fierce punch, but without him, the pressure falls squarely on Petr Leška to come up with the goods, especially considering how streaky their secondary scoring has been.

(3) HC Pardubice -v- (6) HC Vitkovice
(Vitkovice wins the series 4-3)
Martin Růžička and the defence will have to
stand firm against Burger and the Vitkovice forwards
Photo: Jan Jedlička
It must be infuriating being a Vitkovice fan this season. They have picked up huge wins against the top teams, but have suffered results such as a loss to Mlada Boleslav and 8-2 and 8-1 drubbings at the hands of Kometa and Slavia respectively. They have been a model of inconsistency, whilst Pardubice, who started out the season very strongly, have somewhat cooled towards the business end of the season, dropping four of their last six games. Vitkovice's playoff misery has usually come in the final stages, as the Ostrava side have been beaten finalists in the last two seasons, getting swept by Pardubice in 2010 and then losing in five games to Třinec last season. This season's edition features familiar names, such as Burger, Málek, J. Káňa and Ujčík, but they have simply not been winning enough games they should have won. Roman Málek has been poor compared to last season, and they have been too reliant on Burger for points. On the other hand, Pardubice have looked like world beaters when they defeated Sparta 8-2 in December, but they have lost to basement boys Mlada Boleslav on three occasions, and from an objective point of view, I'm not sure whether or not that this side will be tough enough come playoff time. I can smell an upset in this one. It will be a really close series, but I can see Vitkovice in seven.

Key player for Pardubice - Martin Růžička
I will be honest, I have never been 100% convinced by Růžička in the Pardubice goal. I know he is only 24, which is young in terms of goalies, but watching him I have never really been sure that he is an elite Extraliga goalie. I will be happy to eat humble pie if he stonewalls Vitkovice in this series, but I am just not convinced. If he is at his best, then I see Pardubice comfortably winning this series. If he isn't then I see Vitkovice taking it.

Key player for Vitkovice - Jiří Burger
It wasn't going to be anyone else for Vitkovice really. The 34 year old captain is coming off of his best Extraliga season to date, and will be motivated to avenge the two final losses that he has so far suffered as captain. Burger is one of the most complete players in the league, and if his team mates can follow his example, and buy into the system, Vitkovice could be the dark horses of this years playoffs. The doubts arise surrounding his supporting cast though, which puts added pressure on Burger.

(4) Bili Tygri Liberec -v- (5) HC Mountfield
(Liberec wins series 4-2)
Nedvěd and Pinc are the ones
to watch for Liberec
Photo: Bořivoj Černý
Another extremely close series to call. Liberec have the Petr Nedvěd factor which was a big reason for me picking them, but České Budějovice have a fair amount of talent on their roster, and with Jakub Kovář, could easily take this series. Liberec started off slow, but thanks largely to the form of Nedvěd, marched up to fourth place, whilst Budějovice started off strong have have slowed as the season wore on. They were boosted by the addition of Aleš Kotalík mid way through the season, but like Čajánek, hasn't really shone in the Extraliga. 24 points in 30 games is respectable but more will be expected from the former Buffalo Sabre. Whilst Nedvěd's form is a big plus for Liberec, they have also been boosted by the return to form of the erratic Marek Pinc. You don't have a clue what you are going to get from Pinc, but on his day there are few better keepers around. However, whether he can put it together consistently when the pressure on has always been a problem. Pinc is a one game goalie, whilst Kovář has been a model of composed goaltending this year. Once again, the season series between these two sides was split, showing how tight nearly all of the playoff series' this year are, but I think that Liberec will have too much up front for Budějovice to handle.

Key player for Liberec: Petr Nedvěd
I think this one goes without saying. What a year he has had. Nedvěd and his side will still be smarting from last seasons heartbreaking loss to Slavia, and his performances this year show a far cry from his awful first season with Sparta. With the scoring title to his name, he will now be desperate to get an Extraliga title, and you certainly wouldn't put it past him on this years form.

Key player for České Budějovice: Jakub Kovář
On a team which doesn't boast a large amount of fire power, Kovář has proved exactly why the Philadelphia Flyers drafted him in 2006.  Kovář has already shown that he can put it together in the playoffs, and his performance last season (.947% in 6 games) proved that he will give his team a chance to win every game. His performances this year earned him not only a call up, but playing time for the Czech Republic in the EuroHockeyTour, and a .926% this season has given Budějovice a solid backbone, which is relied upon more often than not.

I know now that all the series' will be 4-0 whitewashes, but I hope that at least I get the teams right!

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