Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Vitkovice takes the lead in the series.

(Written for Eurohockey.com)

On home ice, HC Vitkovice Steel's miraculous recovery saw them claim Game 3 of their quarter final series with third seed Pardubice, whilst in the other game, Marek Pinc's 31 shot shutout lifted Liberec to victory.

HC Vitkovice Steel 3 - 2 HC Pardubice (Shootout)
(Vitkovice leads series 2-1)

Pardubice must be ruing the Extraliga's rule to have shootouts in the playoffs, as the third seed have now dropped the last two games, both via shootouts. Vitkovice scored twice to Pardubice's once in the decider, as Ondřej Šedivý and captain Jiří Burger fired home, both with exquisite backhand moves, whilst Filip Šindelář, who had an outstanding game by saving 42 shots, was only beaten by Martin Bartek in the first round. Vitkovice's Roman Málek, who was shelled in game one of this series was not even dressed as the back-up for this game.

The Ostrava side opened the scoring in this match, as veteran forward Viktor Ujčík capitalised on some beautiful passing play, as Burger found Ujčík with a no-look backhand pass, and the latter hammered a quick shot past Martin Růžička, who had 34 saves in this game. Pardubice began the second period on the powerplay, with Ctirad Ovčačík in the box, and they made their advantage count just 27 seconds into the second period, as Petr Koukal fired a rebound shot past Šindelář to level the scores.

As with most of the games in the playoffs so far, this game would be going down to the wire, but it seemed that Pardubice would be the ones to take the win. Pardubice's goal by Jan Stary in the 43rd minute was all the scoring in the period until the final minute, and as the clock ticked down, Vitkovice were becoming desperate. With just ten seconds to go, after quickly gaining the zone, Juraj Štefanka, with no options, fired a weak shot from the right wing side boards. However, not even he would have expected the puck to elude the grasp of Martin Růžička, and see the red goal light go on. Vitkovice had got lucky in regulation, but there was no luck in the shootout, as Šedivý and Burger dispatched their shots expertly to give the Ostrava side a 2-1 lead in the series.

HC MOUNTFIELD České Budějovice 0 - 1 Bili Tygri Liberec
(Liberec leads series 2-1)

It truly was the Marek Pinc show in Budějovice on Monday night, as the veteran shot stopper made 31 saves to lead his team to a Game 3 victory. Only one goal was enough for the White Tigers, which was scored in the 35th minute. Liberec won the faceoff in the Budějovice zone, and the puck was quickly worked to Lukáš Vantuch, who quickly fired home, giving Liberec what would be an unassailable lead.

Budějovice weren't without their chances, and they had thought they had beaten Pinc mid way through the first period, only for the referees to wave the goal off as there was no conclusive evidence that the puck had crossed the line after hitting the frame of the goal. It was a frustrating night for the home fans, who saw their team spurn chance after chance, and the pressure increases on them to get something out of Game 4 in order to keep pace with Liberec. After a disappointing start to the playoffs, Jakub Kovář stopped 31 of 32 shots to give his team a chance in this game, but Budějovice were abject in front of goal.

It was what Liberec coach Filip Pešán called a "typical playoff game". Speaking after the game, he said "It was a match full of personal battles and they fought for every inch of ice. We managed to eliminate the presence of Budějovice in front of our goal, which was the cause of our problems in the last game".

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Kometa stun Sparta

(Written for EuroHockey.com)

Eighth seed Kometa Brno provide a big upset at the Tipsport Arena, as they defeated championship favourites Sparta Praha thanks to a Jakub Svoboda goal with just 67 seconds to go. In the other game, a Radek Duda goal 20 seconds from time lifted Plzeň to a game 1 victory against Zlín

HC Sparta Praha 3 - 4 HC Kometa Brno
(Kometa leads series 1-0)

Sometimes it seems better to qualify from the play-in round. Kometa, who had rolled over Kladno in the playoff qualification round came into this game looking fresh and raring to go, whilst the President's Cup champions Sparta, coming off a two week lay-off looked slow and lethargic. Despite their shots on goal advantage, it was Kometa who took the game to Sparta on the road, and delivered what could be a crucial blow to Sparta's championship aspirations.

2,000 travelling fans from Brno packed into the Tipsport Arena, and their prayers were answered with just over a minute to go. Sparta failed to clear the puck, and Tomáš Svoboda, who kept the puck in the zone, passed it to veteran forward Tomáš Divíšek. His shot was stopped, but luck was clearly on Kometa's side, as the rebound fell kindly on the stick of Jakub Svoboda, who had the simple task of dispatching it into the empty net. "We will try to play like we did today tomorrow", mused Jakub Svoboda. "But now that we have won, our opponents [Sparta] may come at us harder".

Whilst Sparta generally controlled the puck during the game, they had problems all game in protecting the front of their net, and Tomáš Pöpperle had a game to forget, conceding four goals on 25 shots, but that is to take nothing away from Kometa, who soaked up the Sparta pressure, and capitalised when they had their chances. Veteran goalie Jiří Trvaj made 33 saves in Kometa's victory.

It was clear that Sparta hadn't played for two weeks in the first period, as they came out the blocks slowly, and Kometa were 1-0 by the end of the period, as they were slow to react to Jozef Kováčik's point shot, which was tapped in by Leoš Čermák in the third minute to give the road side an early lead. It was clear that Kometa were putting all their efforts in trying to stop Sparta's key scorer, Petr Ton, but in the second period they couldn't stop Sparta taking the lead, as they scored twice in the opening three minutes of the period; Mario Bližňák and Ivan Rachůnek with the goals.

However, Sparta couldn't maintain this pace, and Kometa regrouped and finished the period strongly, and scored in the 37th minute through Tomáš Divíšek, and in the 39th minute through Roman Erat to re-take the lead. The third period was always going to be an important one, and Sparta began it looking like the team that finished first in the regular season. They would eventually draw level in the 43rd minute, as defenceman Angel Krstev tapped home after great puck possession work by Dominik Pacovsky behind Trvaj's goal.

The game looked like it would be heading to overtime, but in the 59th minute, Jakub Svoboda scored to snatch the victory away from Sparta, and to send the travelling fans into raptures. Sparta have now lost the home ice advantage, and could be in serious jeopardy if they happen to lose Sunday's game as well.

HC Plzeň 3 - 2 PSG Zlin
(Plzeň leads series 1-0)

"What's to say? The better team lost today". These were the words of Zlin head coach Rostislav Vlach, who looked distraught after his side lost game 1. A goal with just twenty seconds left in the third period was all that separated these two teams, as Plzeň's top scorer, Radek Duda, fired into what was an empty net after a howler of a mistake by Zlin goalie Jakub Sedláček. Whilst Duda may get the plaudits for scoring the game winner, it was the work of veteran forwards Ondřej Kratěna (2+1) and Michal Straka (0+3) who were influential in Plzeň picking up the victory. Zlin came back from behind twice in the game, but there was no way back after Duda's last minute goal.

Zlin looked to be still riding high after their great comeback in the qualification series, and they took the game to Plzeň. However, it was the hosts who would have the lead at the end of the first period, as Kratěna fired home with sixteen minutes on the clock, beating Sedláček over his shoulder. Zlin rallied after this goal, and had a number of chances on Adam Svoboda in the Plzeň net, but the Brno born shot-stopper was equal to all of them as the clock ticked down in the first period.

The second period told a similar tale as the first, as Zlin appeared to be the better side, but once more, Svoboda was making all the stops, and Zlin were leading a march to the penalty box, which was killing any of the momentum they had. However, half way through the period they finally drew level. A wicked shot from Michal Důras whistled its way past Svoboda and into the goal to the joy of the the small travelling contingent from Moravia.

As in the Sparta-Brno game, the third period would be of monumental importance, and both teams began tentatively. Zlin had a number of power play chances, but in the 51st minute their resolve was broken, as Kratěna scored his second of the game. The ČEZ Aréna was rocking after this goal, but only thirty seconds later, Zlin had rallied back, and promising young forward Petr Holík fired home. This goal gave Zlin the momentum, and Plzeň were on the ropes, mustering few offensive forays in the remaining minutes. An end to end game ensued as the clock ticked down, as neither team wanted the game to go to overtime, and it always looked like a mistake would decide the game, and unfortunately for Zlin, Sedláček's lack of concentration was what gift-wrapped the victory to Plzeň in what was a hugely exciting game 1, and a great opener to what should be a brilliant series.

Pardubice and Vitkovice open with wins.

Written for EuroHockey.com

(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.

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!