Thursday, 2 August 2012

Exploring new waters: A look at the Czech Extraliga's newest team.

The re-branded Piráti Chomutov side get their
first crack at the Extraliga in over half a century
After three rotten years propping up the table, it was high time that BK Mladá Boleslav were relegated and gave the 1.liga champions from 2011-2012, Piráti Chomutov, a crack at the elite level for the first time in almost half a century. The club, who were re-branded in the run up to the 2011-2012 from the old KLH Chomutov side have had an awful lot of money pumped into them over the past two seasons, and after defeating HC Slovan Ústečtí Lvi in seven games in the 1.liga final, went on to defeat Mladá Boleslav in the relegation playoff.

It was fitting for Piráti, who moved into a new 5,250 seater arena at the beginning of the 2011 season, to get promoted to the Extraliga, as it marks a rapid rise from relative obscurity to now becoming one of the biggest up and coming teams in the Czech Republic. If the backing continues then they could perhaps even follow in the footsteps of HC Kometa Brno, who reached the Czech Extraliga playoff final last season.

Last season was always a two horse race between 1.liga stalwarts HC Slovan Ústečtí Lvi and Piráti, as they raced ahead of the rest of the pack in the Czech second tier. Eventually Slovan finished the season as the regular season champions, with Piráti trailing 12 points behind in second place. Fifteen years ago, the Chomutov franchise was playing in the depths of the 2.liga, and they were lucky in order to secure a 1.liga license in 1997. From the get go, Chomutov were able to make their mark in the Czech second tier, being runners up in 1999-2000, before being victorious the season later, winning the final series against HC Liberec 3:0. However, that alone is not enough to get promoted, and they ended up facing Karlovy Vary in the relegation playoff, where the Extraliga side were victorious.

Thus followed a barren spell, with the team consistently making the playoffs, but often falling in the early stages. 2009-2010 saw Chomutov victorious in the 1.liga playoffs for the second time in their history, but once again they couldn't win the relegation playoff, going down to Mladá Boleslav. However, fast forward two seasons and Chomutov would be able to reverse the result against Mladá Boleslav, as the 1.liga side won the series 4:3.

The 1.liga final against HC Slovan Ústečtí Lvi was one to remember, as the teams went back and forth with three of the games going to overtime, including a thrilling 7:6 overtime victory for Piráti in Game 3. After five games, Slovan had a 3:2 advantage, but Chomutov were able to rally back for a 4:1 victory on home ice in Game 6, setting up a thrilling winner take all Game 7 in Usti nad Labem. This game would also go to overtime with the score poised at 2:2. Step forward Jakub Grof.

That goal by Grof sealed the championship victory for Piráti in great style. However, as they have already experienced, that would not be enough to get them to the Czech Republic's top table. Mladá Boleslav awaited, and once again the series would go to seven games. Mlada Boleslav seemed able to pull back the deficit at each step, winning Game 6 to take the series to a seventh game. However, David Hruška's second period goal would turn out to be the series winner as Chomutov won Game 7 to the delight of the travelling fans.

David Hruška is no stranger
to the Extraliga
Photo: Jan Pidrman
So where do Chomutov stand now? Well, looking at their roster for the coming season, the top line is a who's who of past Extraliga stars. David Hruška will return to the Extraliga for the second time after leaving Slavia in 2010 to move to Chomutov. Hruška, who is now 35 and with five Extraliga titles to his name scored 55 points last season, and his performances on loan at Karlovy Vary in 2010-2011 show that he can still contribute at the top level. Also on their roster is Milan Kraft. The former Pittsburgh Penguin had a 56 point season last year, but has yet to flourish in the Extraliga following his return from North America. 35 year old Milan Procházka is another with considerable Extraliga experience who makes the move up from the 1.liga, as well as netminder Milan Řehoř, who was simply sensational through the playoffs, and fully deserves his shot at the Extraliga.

The club have made some interesting signings going into the new season as well. Former HK36 Skalica star Miroslav Zálešák moves to the Extraliga after captaining HC Košice in the Slovak Extraliga last season, whilst their defence has been boosted by the acquisitions of Martin Rygl and Martin Lučka, the latter on loan from PSG Zlín. Another on loan from Zlín is Michal Důras, who can certainly contribute at the Extraliga level, and will be looking to bounce back from a pretty poor season with Zlín last year. As it happens, overtime hero in the 1.liga final Jakub Grof won't be there to take his place in the Extraliga, as he has moved on to the Landshut Cannibals in the 2.Bundesliga.

There is no doubt that it is going to be a struggle for Piráti next season, as from the look of their roster so far, they do need a bit more talent added in each area if they aim to make the playoffs next season. It does appear that they are looking for a consolidation year in 2012-2013, with the hopes that the large attendances which they stand to gain will help them boost their finances. Over 3,000 showed up for the clubs European Trophy game against HC Slovan Bratislava on Wednesday, and this should be a great boost to the club.

However, as is the way in a league which has the risk of relegation, their period of consolidation may not be enough to help them survive, as HC Slovan Ústečtí Lvi can attest to, as they only survived one Extraliga season on their last trip up to the country's top division.

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