Sunday, 1 April 2012

Extraliga Playoff Update.

I realise it's been a long while again since I've updated. I'm rather disappointed that I haven't been keeping up with this, but work and an interest in the KHL playoffs has left me missing out on a lot of what's happened in the playoffs so far.

At the time of writing, both semi finals are at the Game 5 stage, with Kometa Brno showing that their win over Sparta Praha was no fluke, as they have continued their rich vein of form by taking a 3-1 series lead over Plzeň. After getting off to a rocky start against Sparta, losing two of the first three games, Kometa won Games 4, 5 and 6 to punch their ticket to the Extraliga semi-finals. Sparta, who impressed for so long during the regular season seemed to struggle to find any sort of form against the eighth seed, and the top line of Petr Ton, Petr Tenkrát and Mario Bližňák failed to find any sort of rhythm during the series. Another area in which Sparta paled in regards to their regular season play was in their defence. Usually ever reliable, numerous defensive lapses resulted in Kometa goals, as well as the dip in the form of Tomáš Pöpperle, who was pulled in one game and omitted from the line-up in Game 5.

Jiri Trvaj has rolled back the years
 in the playoffs so far
Photo: Ivo Dostál
For Kometa, it is difficult to place the success on the shoulders of one player, but credit must be given to 37 year old netminder Jiří Trvaj, who appears to be turning back the years with his stellar play in the playoffs. After sharing the duties with Sasu Hovi for most of the season in the Kometa net, Trvaj has grabbed the reins and is showing some of his best form in the playoffs so far. With 10 wins in 13 games and a save percentage over 93%, Trvaj is certainly proving that he still has what it takes to be a starter at the Extraliga level. Another player turning back the years is Tomáš Divíšek. Divíšek has always flattered to deceived following his incredible season for Pardubice in 2003/04, and after a so-so season with Mlada Boleslav last season, Divíšek ended up at Brno halfway through this season, and is currently the playoff leading scorer with 15 points in 13 games. However, it is not fair to give Divíšek all the plaudits, as on the scoring front, Kometa have been blessed with incredible scoring depth so far. Jakub Svoboda, Leoš Čermák and Tomáš Svoboda have all put in stellar performances in this years playoffs, but will need to continue to do so if Kometa want to get over the finish line.

Radek Duda has struggled in the playoffs
Photo: Ivo Dostál
At the time of writing, Kometa have one foot in the Extraliga final, as they hold a 3-1 lead over Plzeň. Kometa won both games on the road as well as Game 3, meaning that  Plzeň will have to win the remaining three games in the series if they are to advance. Kometa shut out  Plzeň's forwards in both Games 2 and 3, with Trvaj keeping a shutout streak spanning for over 150 minutes. It is safe to say that  Plzeň, like Sparta, may be resenting the two weeks of inactivity during the qualification round, which has seen both teams appear flat footed to start the playoffs.  Plzeň needed to go to Game 7 to beat a dogged Zlín side in the quarter finals, and their win in Game 4 was their first road win of the playoffs. They look snakebitten, and whilst Radek Duda hasn't exactly been slacking in the playoffs, his scoring form is nowhere near as hot as it was during the regular season, mustering only 7 points in 11 games. Martin Straka is the only Plzeň player near a point per game, but he has only scored one goal during the playoffs. Another interesting point to note during the playoffs is that Adam Svoboda, a netminder who knows what it takes to win a championship in the Czech Repblic, has been benched during the semi finals after conceding four goals in Game 1. 20 year old starlet Marek Mazanec has taken over the duties against Kometa, and he cannot be blamed for any of the losses during the semi final series, as Plzeň failed to score in both Game 2 and Game 3. Whether or not  Plzeň's 3-2 win in Game 4 will be the turning point in the series remains to be seen, but with three more wins needed to advance, the odds are truly stacked against Martin Straka's men.

Daniel Rákos celebrating his series winning goal
Photo: Jan Jedlička
Third seed Pardubice have been hit and miss so far in the playoffs, and currently stand tied at 2-2 in their series with Liberec after defeating Vitkovice in seven games in the quarter finals. In a series full of twists and turns, which saw Pardubice win Game 5 6-0, only for Vitkovice to rally back and take Game 6 by a 6-1 scoreline. A Daniel Rákos overtime winner in Game 7 saw Pardubice advance to the semi finals, where once again they have proved to be consistently inconsistent. Liberec and Pardubice have alternated victories so far in the semi final, and Game 5 in Pardubice will be a pivotal game in deciding the series. Martin Růžička has certainly proved me wrong so far, as he has put in a number of fantastic performances throughout the playoffs so far, which sees him at the top of the netminding statistics, whilst Pardubice's offence has been somewhat hit and miss. Jan Kolář and Petr Koukal's performances haven't matched their regular season totals, and it has been depth scoring which has got Pardubice by so far, as Martin Bartek and Radovan Somík have proved capable goal getters so far with 11 and 9 points respectively. It is probably fair to say that on their day, Pardubice are the best team left in the playoffs and could easily take the title, but if they continue their inconsistent play, they may not even make it to the final.

The White Tigers of Liberec were arguably the most impressive team not named Kometa in the first round of the playoffs. They managed to chase Jakub Kovář out of Game 1, and aside from a blip in Game 2, they dispatched of České Budějovice in five games. Liberec are always a difficult team to overlook simply because of the Petr Nedvěd factor, and his 12 points in 9 games have gone a long way to Liberec's strong showing in the playoffs so far, but it would be unfair to overlook Marek Pinc, who has put in some solid performances as well. Michal Bulíř has also made a name for himself as one of the Extraliga's brightest young stars following his hatrick in Game 1 of the quarter finals, but he hasn't been able to keep up that scoring form during the semi final series. Jaroslav Kudrna has pitched in with five goals, but it does seem that everything that Liberec needs to do to win revolves around their veteran captain Nedvěd. Liberec need to win once more in Pardubice if they are to advance to the finals, and Nedvěd won't be able to do it all on his own.

I guess it makes sense to look back to my quarter final predictions that I made just before the quarter-finals and see how wrong I was.

(1) HC Sparta Praha vs (8) Kometa Brno
My prediction: Sparta win 4-1
Actual series: Kometa win 4-2

So this was a comprehensive cross on my tick sheet, although I don't think many people would have picked Kometa to win. Considering their relative experience and fervent fanbase, Kometa are the sort of team which should never be overlooked in a playoff setting, but after how well Sparta had played during the tail end of the series, even I saw Sparta rolling over them with relative ease. Instead, Kometa now sit one win away from the final, whilst Sparta are off golfing.

(2) HC Plzeň vs (7) PSG Zlín
My prediction: Plzeň win 4-2
Actual series: Plzeň win 4-3

I managed to get the right team this time, but Zlín got one more win than I thought they would. I was rather surprised that Zlin were able to score as many goals as they did, which may be due to the resurgent form of Petr Čajánek, who scored the same amount of goals in 12 playoff games as he did during the whole regular season. 

(3) HC Pardubice vs (6) HC Vitkovice
My prediction: Vitkovice win 4-3
Actual series: Pardubice win 4-3

This time I got the right amount of games but the wrong team. I thought that Pardubice would score enough goals to see them through, but wouldn't have the goaltending required to advance to the semis, but as I mentioned,  Martin Růžička has played brilliantly throughout the playoffs so far, and has gone a long way to getting his team to the semi finals. Once again for Vitkovice it was a case of the old guard putting in another good shift, as Burger and Ujčík were outstanding, whilst the younger players couldn't rise to the challenge. It was also a strange series for Roman Málek, as he only played three games due to injury, and looked distinctly average in all of them. The curse that Málek held over Pardubice seems to be over.

(4) Bili Tygri Liberec vs (5) HC Mountfield
My prediction: Liberec win 4-2
Actual series: Liberec win 4-1

Again, right team, wrong number of games. I was rather disappointed with the performances of České Budějovice, as they simply did not turn up. They struggled to deal with Nedvěd, and made life very easy for Marek Pinc. Every year it seems that Budějovice go into the playoffs as possible dark horses, but year after year they fail to get anywhere in the playoffs. Something needs to change for that team.

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