Thursday, 31 May 2012

Czech Extraliga 2011-2012 Review - Part 1

Those who missed the boat - The teams who missed the playoffs

It's that time again, when we look back on the year that has just passed, which was yet another closely fought Czech Extraliga campaign which saw some shocks, some surprises and another year of thrilling hockey. The Czech Extraliga is one of the most equal leagues in Europe (Mlada Boleslav aside), with very few champions in the recent era being able to consistently challenge at the top, and an even smaller number being able to repeat a finals appearance, let alone a championship victory. After a closely fought series, The third seed going into the playoffs, HC Pardubice took the glory, their second championship in third years, as they put a stop to Kometa Brno's Cinderella story run, as the eighth seeds from the Czech second city fell just one step short, after eliminating the regular season champions HC Sparta Praha and HC Plzeň 1929 in the earlier rounds.

However, for this run through we will start from the bottom up, and perhaps the first team I'll encounter won't surprise you...

BK Mladá Boleslav
Regular season result: 14th (61 points)
Relegation play-out result: 4th (76 points)
Relegation playoff result: Lost in seven games to Chomutov. Relegated to 1.liga. 

Jaroslav Balaštík failed to find his
old form for Mlada Boleslav
Photo: Jan Pavlíček,
Another season for Mladá, and despite the summer acquisitions of Jaroslav Balaštík and David Vyborny, it was another season of finishing in last place for the team from North Bohemia. The big signings proved to be a disappointment as the former free-scoring Balaštík only managed 33 points, which was incredibly a team high, as Mlada Boleslav's impotent offence left them without a hope in many games. Mladá only averaged just over two goals a game, and when all your summer free agent money has gone into forwards, they simply have to be scoring more than they did. Mladá's defensive performance was arguably better than it has been over recent years, but they still shipped a ton of goals, leaving them without a hope in many games that they played. One of the main reasons for Mladá's last place performance was due to their inability to bounce back from losses. They lost five games in a row three times during the regular season, and struggled to put any run of wins together. Things were looking up towards the end of January, as the side went on their best run of the season, picking up six wins in seven games, and they were putting Litvinov and Slavia under serious pressure at the bottom of the table, but it was too little too late, and it was another last placed finish for Mladá, and yet another appearance in the relegation play-outs. Mladá won five of their twelve playout games, but the gap between them and 13th placed Litvinov was simply too wide a gap to bridge, and Mladá would go on to face the 1.liga champions, Piráti Chomutov, in the relegation playoff.

Fortune has often favoured the Extraliga side in the relegation playoffs, as a gruelling slog in the 1.liga has often left the champions out of steam. Chomutov, who defeated HC Slovan Ústečtí Lvi in seven games thanks to Jakub Grof's overtime winner, managed to overcome this exhaustion and take the relegation playoff, sending Mladá Boleslav down to the 1.liga. Neither side won two consecutive games in the relegation playoff, but it was Chomutov who would claim Game 7 with a thrilling 4:2 victory in Mladá Boleslav, and now return to the Extraliga following a 38 year absence. 

For a team which was built largely on loan signings for the 2011-2012, it is interesting to see what direction Mladá will come from now. Their four seasons in the Extraliga were largely unsuccessful, but they will face a significant challenge if they want to return back to the Extraliga next season, as the 1.liga is an incredibly competitive league. 

Player of the season: Roman Tomas 
It's often very difficult to pick a player of the year on a team that has performed so purely throughout the season, but the Slovakian born left winger had by far his best Extraliga season to date. The Poprad native, who was a summer signing from HC Vitkovice almost doubled his production from last season, scoring 31 points in 51 games, and being his teams top goal scorer with 21 goals. His playoff production was credible, scoring 11 points in 19 games, and he seemed to form some chemistry with Balaštík, but the goal scoring forward struggled with a lack of production throughout the year. Unsigned as yet for 2012-2013, many Extraliga teams could do with Tomas to add depth scoring, especially for mid table teams. 

HC VERVA Litvínov
Regular season result: 13th (64 points)
Relegation play-out result: 3rd place (83 points)

Goaltending was a problem area for
Litvinov in 2011-2012.
Litvínov's downward slide has continued during 2011-2012, and the bronze medal from 2009 appears to be a long way back in history now. Litvínov recorded their worst finish for a decade as a collective defensive and netminding nightmare saw Litvinov ship 171 goals in 52 games, which gave them only a three point advantage over Mladá Boleslav come the end of the season. Following the retirement of home town hero Jiří Šlégr, Litvinov have never been able to fill the role that the former NHLer played on the back-end. Signings like Ján Brejčák and Richard Jares have failed to live up to expectations, whilst the netminding situation has got worse year on year. After releasing Jaroslav Hübl last season, Litvinov decided to run with a goaltending pair of journeyman 1.liga and 2.liga goalie Martin Volke and Petr Franěk, who simply did not do the job required of them, although they were certainly let down by the defence in front of them. It is therefore no surprise that the team has not kept the services of either of them so far. Viktor Hübl was his teams top scorer with an impressive 48 points in 49 games, his best totals since his return to Litvinov in 2008. František Lukeš proved a useful supporting act for Hübl, with a solid 38 point showing, but other big signings failed to live up to expectations. Despite his age, Litvinov would have been hoping for more from Martin Ručinský, who only managed to score 25 points this season, with retirement surely beckoning now for the former NHLer. The only real positive of the season was the discovery of Robin Hanzl as an Extraliga quality player, and in his rookie season the 23 year old showed flashes of brilliance for what was on the whole a very disappointing season. They managed to avoid the prospect of the relegation playoff thanks to five straight wins in the play-out round robin, which meant they were able to open a gap over Mladá Boleslav, and were saved the threat of relegation to the 1.liga

Player of the season: Viktor Hübl
It couldn't be anyone else really. The only Litvinov player who consistently brought his best performances, and to be able to record his best points totals ever on such a poor team shows that he still has top level Extraliga quality. It will be imperative for Litvinov to retain his services if they want to be competitive next season, but with the prospect of big offers coming his way, Litvinov could end up losing their best player of the past four seasons.

HC Slavia Praha
Regular season result: 12th (66 points)
Relegation play-out result: 2nd place (85 points)

The Old and the New: Petr Kadlec (back)
and Dmitrij Jaškin (front)
Photo: Pavel Vrtiška,
It's rather difficult for me to right this. Last seasons surprise semi finalists, who were one game away from eliminating eventual champions HC Oceláři Třinec in last years playoffs had one of their worst seasons in recent memory, as Vladimir Růžička's men struggled all season long, and ended the season at a hugely important crossroads. The summer saw Slavia lose their best player of the previous season yet again, as Michal Vondrka left to try his luck with Kärpät in the SM-Liiga, only to return after yielding six points in 21 games for the Finnish club.  Vondrka, who has been one of Slavia's best players over recent years added a huge boost to an impotent offence which improved towards the end of the year. One of the strangest things about Slavia's season was the discrepancy between their home and away form. Slavia had the third best away form of any Extraliga side, taking 36 points from their 26 road games, but it all fell apart at the o2 Arena for the 2008 Champions. Slavia lost 15 games at home this year, which was the most of any Extraliga side, and this saw crowd numbers dwindle, forcing the side to return to their old haunt, Zimni Stadion Eden for the relegation play-outs. The start of the season saw Slavia slump to 14th place following a win of just one win in eight games following two wins to start the season, and this inconsistency tainted the side throughout the season. Whilst the return of Michal Vondrka seemed to spark some life into the team, the Jonathan Sim experiment loan spell failed, whilst the loan signing of 40 year old 1.liga veteran Jan Alinč appeared to be a shrewd one by the side. However, the prospect of challenging for playoff spots seems unlikely when a player like Alinč walks into the teams number one centre spot. The one positive in Slavia's downturn was the form of Tomáš Hertl. The 18 year old, who is slated to go in either of the top two rounds of the upcoming NHL Entry Draft burst on the scene after playing just one Extraliga game prior to the 2011-2012 season. Whilst Hertl's form cooled towards the end of the year, he bagged 25 points in a season which was interrupted by injury and a call up to the Czech squad for the IIHF World Junior Championships. Vladimir Růžička jr. also had his best season to date, showing signs that the undoubted talent the lanky forward has is still present. 26 points may not be a huge total, but it does show progress for a player who has struggled to get his name on the score sheet at times. The one big negative regarding Slavia's young players was the performance of St. Louis Blues draft pick Dmitrij Jaškin. After a strong showing towards the end of the 2010-2011 season, Jaškin appeared snake-bitten all season scoring only 2 points for Slavia in 30 regular season games. Following a spell with 1.liga side, Beroun, as well as playing for the Czech Republic in the World Juniors, Jaškin appeared to return to last years form, scoring three goals in seven play-out games, but Slavia will be hoping for big things from the promising youngster. There were signs of optimism towards the end of the season, as Slavia won five straight games to close out the season, including an 8:1 drubbing of Vitkovice, before the club moved back to Eden for the play-outs, to the delight of the fans. Slavia only managed a .500 record doing the play-out round robin stage, but it was enough to keep them out of trouble, and meant they finished the season in 12th place, with a serious injection of talent needed in order to get the team back into the playoffs.

Player of the season: Michal Vondrka
Despite only playing 30 games, Vondrka was easily Slavia's top scorer, only challenged by club captain and #1 defenceman Petr Kadlec. Vondrka tried his luck in Finland following eight seasons with Slavia, but he quickly found out that the grass was not greener on the other side, and returned back to the club which he has made his home. Slavia really struggled due to the lack of any real stand out names on their roster, and it is no surprise that when Vondrka rejoined, their goal scoring form shot up rapidly. It will be imperative for Slavia to keep Vondrka, but rumours have the České Budějovice born forward staying in Prague, but playing for HC Lev Praha.

HC Energie Karlovy Vary
Regular season result: 11th (67 points)
Relegation play-out result: 1st place (86 points)

Lanky forward Petr Kumstát was the top goal
scorer in the Extraliga in 2011-2012
Photo: Jan Čech,
2009 looks a long way back in the distance now for Karlovy Vary, as the spa town team slumped to their second 11th place finish in three seasons. Václav Baďouček was meant to be the coach to lead the club back towards the playoffs, but any hopes of reaching the playoffs were dented by an awful start to the season. The club dropped 12 of their opening 14 games, leaving them rooted at the bottom of the standings right from the get go. It's hard to say where it went so wrong for Karlovy Vary, as it seemed that whenever the team managed to put some goals on the board, they would leak goals like a colander, but when the defence managed to keep the goals out, the forwards became snakebitten. What Karlovy lacked most of all though, was depth scoring. Petr Kumstát and Lukáš Pech were the two stars for the spa team this season, as Kumstát was the Extraliga's leading goal scorer, as he bagged 27 goals, beating Pardubice's Jan Kolář by a solitary goal, whilst Pech was the teams leading scorer and the main foil for Kumstát, as the 28 year old scored 45 (15+30) in 52 games. It has been the same story for Karlovy Vary, as over the past few seasons Pech and Kumstát have led the line, but the depth scoring simply wasn't there. Fifth year club captain Václav Skuhravý had a rotten season, scoring only half the points he did in 2010-2011, whilst other forwards such as Marek Melenovsky flattered to deceive, with the diminutive forward being loaned to Zlín for the second half of the season. The Michal Mikeska experiment failed for Karlovy, as they snared him on loan for the second half of the season, but the former KHL forward only managed to put 13 points on the board following a rotten start to his season with České Budějovice. However, this season did see the emergence of two players on the Extraliga scene. Martin Zaťovič was one of the few who provided consistent secondary scoring, whilst young Slovakian forward Rastislav Dej continued his progression, although Dej has chosen to leave Karlovy Vary, signing with České Budějovice for the 2012-2013 season. It's clear that nothing highlights how short of depth Karlovy Vary were than the statistics from the relegation play-out round. Kumstát, Pech and Zaťovič all bagged around 20 points, whilst no other forward, apart from Tomáš Sykora, scoring more than five points. Following Christmas, Karlovy Vary's fortunes seemed to turn around, and the team began leapfrogging the other relegation candidates. The team went on a run of six games without defeat in February, as well as picking up wins against title chasers Sparta Praha and Pardubice in the run in. However, the gap between Karlovy Vary and the 10th spot was simply too big to make up, and the playoffs were a step too far. The team was in a good position to avoid being sucked into the relegation battle, and the club maintained a .500 record throughout the relegation play-outs, which left them in 11th spot as the season closed, which was especially impressive following the recall by Pardubice of Dušan Salfický. Salfický was loaned out to Karlovy Vary midway through the season, and although the team mainly employed a 1a/1b rotation with Lukáš Mensator, Salficky was clearly the better of the two over the course of the season. Mensator's play during the play-outs was relatively poor, and makes it all the more surprising that Karlovy will be running with Mensator as their starter for the 2012-2013 season, as I struggle to see either Marek Benda or Tomáš Hovorka doing well enough to depose him.

Player of the season: Petr Kumstát 
It was a tricky choice between Kumstát and Pech in regards to player of the season, but Kumstát's goal scoring on a team which really lacked a potent offensive punch beyond the first line took him over the top. He bagged a total of 38 goals when combining regular season and play-out statistics, and whilst the support of Pech no doubt helped him to reach these high totals, he showed many times that he could create offence out of nothing. The 6'6'' forward, who has played for Karlovy Vary since 2003 has re-signed for next season, and the team will be hoping that he continues to trend upwards, and can lead his team back to the playoffs.

HC Oceláři Třinec
Regular season result: 10th (73 points)
Play-in result: Lost in five games (3-2) to PSG Zlín.

Slovak goalie Peter Hamerlík starred for Třineč this season
Photo: Marian Ježowicz,
Last seasons champions had a season to forget, that's for sure. The team was rocked by the high profile losses of their two best players last season in playoff points record setter Martin Růžička and Lukáš Krajíček, who both signed KHL contracts, with Amur Khabarovsk and Dynamo Minsk respectively. The loss of Růžička was especially tough for Třinec. Whilst the likelihood of him repeating his remarkable 33 point playoff campaign in 2011 is unlikely, his overall production was simply not replaced by the Silesian team. Miloslav Hořava was pencilled in to replace Růžička, but after he walked out on the team to play for Geneve-Servette in Switzerland, he returned for a second time, and he didn't exactly shine. Michal Chovan was another new signing that turned out to be a bust, as the Slovakian only mustered a return of 4 points in 20 games, which saw him loaned down to the 1.liga for Hradec Kralove, before being loaned back to the Slovak Extraliga. Třinec also attempted to buy into the current trend of Extraliga teams in recruiting North American players to fill out their rosters. However, Třinec seemed to get the wrong end of the stick, and ended up signing former NHL tough guy Rob Davison, as well as penning Darcy Verot, of Vityaz Chekhov infamy. Davison lasted 19 games for the Steelers before moving to Red Ball Salzburg in the EBEL, whilst Verot was cut after just one game, where he picked up ten penalty minutes. 10th may have been a little harsh for Třinec, as the Extraliga was once again an incredibly close battle for the mid-table positions, with only four points separating Třinec from Vitkovice in sixth place. However, where the fight was lost for Třinec was in December, as the team went on a run of just one win in nine games, which sent them plummeting down the table. Whilst Karlovy Vary struggled from a lack of depth, Třinec simply lacked the top end talent to make them a contender. Radek Bonk's numbers slumped, whilst Václav Varaďa missed most of the season through injury. Třinec's top scorer, David Květoň put 29 points on the board, but even these numbers were down on previous years. The only position in which Třinec seemed to do well in was netminder, as Slovakian goalie Peter Hamerlík finally secured his position as the starting goaltender, beating out the challenge of Martin Vojtek once and for all. Třinec's tenth place finish saw them line up against PSG Zlín in the play-ins, and following a 3:0 defeat in Game 1, the Steelers took a 2:1 lead in the series, as they won Game 2 in a shootout, before thrashing Zlín 6:2, with Miloslav Hořava scoring twice. However, the tide seemed to turn as the series progressed, and Zlín took the final two games, the first in a shootout, and the second thanks to a brace by Ondřej Veselý, as Zlín ran out to a 3:0 lead in the second period, creating an unassailable lead. So Třinec's defence of their championship was over before the playoffs had even started, and no doubt questions will be asked over recruitment this off-season. The team has already retained the services of Hamerlík, Bonk and key defenceman Martin Lojek, whilst rumours of Martin Růžička's return appear to have some backing behind them, following his pretty poor season for Amur Khabarovsk. 14 players have been released, and there are a number of big names joining Třinec next season, with Pardubice's Daniel Rakos, Zlín's Lukáš Galvas, Liberec's Tomáš Klimenta and Slavia's Vladimir Roth all signing up for the Silesians for 2012-2013. It would take a brave man to bet on Třinec missing the playoffs next season.

Player of the season: Peter Hamerlík
Hamerlík was one of the few Třinec players who actually improved on 2010-2011. Whilst the Extraliga hangover seemed to be affecting his team mates, Hamerlík shone, playing in 42 regular season games and posting a respectable .928 save percentage. His performances for the Steelers earned him a call up to Vladimir Vůjtek's Team Slovakia, where he acted as the backup goaltender behind HC Lev Poprad's Jan Laco. Hamerlík, a goalie who has often been shrouded with inconsistency really progressed throughout 2011-2012, and although he would have been disappointed with missing the playoffs, the experience of playing his first Extraliga season as a true number one goalie, rather than a 1a will be invaluable.

Rytíři Kladno
Regular season result: 9th place (74 points)
Play-in result: Lost in three games (3-0) to HC Kometa Brno

They missed the playoffs, but signs
of optimism for Kladno
Photo: Ivo Dostál,
After three straight seasons in the relegation play-outs, it seems that finally there is some positivity within the Kladno camp. A summer re-branding of the club, moving from the old bulldog logo to the new "Rytíři" brand (translates to English as Knights), seemed to create some optimism around the club, which contributed to their best finish in the Extraliga since 2008. A new identity saw a number of new faces join the club, as forwards Michal Dragoun and Marek Hovorka (retained after 13 games in 2010-2011) led the line for Jaromir Jágr's hometown team. However, for a team that was clearly built around a strong defence, the mid-season losses of Ivan Majeský and Pavel Skrbek to big offers in Scandinavia resulted in the team struggling to put up consistent victories throughout the season, which was one of the main reasons for them missing out on the playoffs. Couple this with a rather impotent attack, and Kladno, despite progressing last season, still have a long way to go until they can say they have truly "arrived" once again in the Extraliga. The old guard led the line once again, as club captain Pavel Patera showed he still has it at the age of 40, although as his form continues to tend downwards, reinforcements need to be found. Slovakian forward Jiří Bicek would have been expected to contribute more than 25 points, whilst Kladno's top scorer, Jaroslav Kalla managed to 35 points, but his time in Kladno appears to be up after 12 seasons, as the 32 year old makes the switch to HC Slavia Praha. Where Kladno really fell down was their ability to turn one loss into two or three on the spin. They struggled during the midwinter months, and constantly floated between 6th and 10th position, but simply did not score enough goals to climb higher in the table. In goal, Jan Chabera had another stirling season, posting a .930 save percentage, but his inconsistency at times crippled Kladno, and the backup, Lukáš Cikánek, is clearly not starter material just yet. Chabera seems to be the sort of goalie that thrives on a mid-level team, but would struggle on a contender, but it appears that he has done enough to earn a contract next season, and will be back as Kladno's starter for 2012-2013. Kladno had a very inconsistent run in, and went into the play-ins struggling for form, where they met eighth seed, HC Kometa Brno. However, from the get go it seemed that Kometa were simply too much for the Knights to handle. A three goal first period in Game 1 was enough to win the game for Brno, as they took a 5:2 victory, whilst Game 2 saw Kometa shell Jan Chabera once again, scoring twice in the first period, but this time Chabera was yanked from the cage.  Cikánek started Game 3 on home ice, and whilst he battled valiantly, could not make the saves needed in overtime, and just as soon as Kladno's play-ins begun, they were over. Swept in three games and missing the playoffs for the fourth consecutive year. The momentum has been built, but the hard work needs to continue over the off-season in order for this not to be a flash in the pan.

Player of the season: Jaroslav Kalla
Kalla, a consistent performer for Kladno over the past decade sounded off his career with the side as the teams most productive player. He only needed 35 points to reach this target, and whilst this number pails in comparison to some of his totals from previous seasons, it represented a big leap following a poor 2010-2011. Kalla, finished with a healthy 35 points and scored twice in the play-ins, but didn't have the backup in order to take his team over the top. However, with his departure to Slavia already confirmed, Kladno have a lot of work to do to find a replacement for the winger, otherwise they could face another season of disappointment in front of the net.


So that's it for the teams that missed out on the post-season. Coming next will be the four eliminated quarter-finalists, before part 3 will cover the beaten semi-finalists and the two finalists, including the Cinderella story of Kometa Brno, as well as covering the champions, HC Pardubice.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Helsinki painted red, white and blue

It truly was Slavic power in Helsinki on Sunday, as Russia, Slovakia and the Czech Republic locked out the medal positions. The Russians overpowered the spirited Slovaks in the final by a score of 6:2, whilst the Czech Republic battled to hold on to their bronze medal thanks to a 3:2 victory over the hosts, Finland.

Thousands lined Bratislava's streets on Monday
Fans from all across Slovakia packed into town squares in almost every town in the country, but their heroes couldn't find a way to shut out the incredibly talented Russians. Whilst the tournament's leading scorer, Yevgeni Malkin, was kept off the scoresheet in the third period, visibly getting frustrated by his lack of opportunities, it was Russia's second line of Alexander Ovechkin, Alexander Syomin and Pavel Datsyuk that did the damage. Syomin scored twice for Russia and was voted their man of the match for the final. Slovakia took the lead in the second minute of the game to the delight of the numerous travelling support, as skipper Zdeno Chára opened his account for the tournament with a ripper from the blueline, flying high into Semyon Varlamov's top corner. Russia started to rally back soon after, and a defensive mix-up allowed Alexander Ovechkin to burst into the Slovaks zone, and send a pass across the face of goal to his Washington Capitals team-mate, Alexander Syomin, who netted past the tournament's top netminder, Ján Laco.

The second period was where Russia really took the game away from the Slovaks, and sealed their goal medal.  The Russians scored three unanswered goals to give them one hand on the trophy after forty minutes. Goals from Alexander Perezhogin, Alexei Tereshchenko and Alexander Syomin gave the Russians a 4:1 lead at the second intermission, which despite their great comeback against Canada in the quarterfinals, looked a bridge too far for the hurting Slovaks. Pavel Datsyuk scored four minutes into the third period to take the game to 5:1, which saw head coach Vladimir Vujtek take the decision to pull Ján Laco, through no fault of the new Donbass Donetsk netminder at all. Peter Hamerlík took his place, and made eight saves. The Slovaks got a powerplay in the middle of the period, their first for two games, and they would find the net again, as Zdeno Chára crashed the net and managed to put the puck home after a good pass by Tomáš Surový. However, the Russians were not to be denied, and Slovakia could not muster enough offence to get back into the game. With two minutes left on the clock, Malkin put the cherry on top of what had been a perfect tournament for the Pittsburgh Penguins forward, as well as the Russian team. Malkin scored to take the score to 6:2, and meant that the Russians would go undefeated through the tournament, not even dropping a single point. Ilya Nikulin raised the IIHF trophy aloft, giving the Russians their first tournament victory since 2009.

Tomáš Kopecký points to the sky for Pal'o
Following the game, the Slovaks sportsmanship and spirit has been commended by all corners. The faces of youngsters Libor Hudáček and Tomáš Tatar were ones of sadness and disappointment, but for the veterans, who may not get many more chances to win medals, the overall emotion was pride. Pride that a small country from central Europe, who have been kept away for so long from tasting success, managed to pick up a silver medal which an unfancied team, and more pressure on securing their Olympic qualification. Zdeno Chára and Tomáš Kopecký swapped their jersies following the game for Pavol Demitra ones, once again showing how much of a galvanising force the memory of the late former captain has been to this team. Monday afternoon saw the team welcomed back to a heroes welcome in Bratislava, with fans lining the street to catch a glimpse of their team, with silver medals glistening in the May sun around their necks. Whilst questions will still be raised about the talent coming up through the ranks, these questions can take a back seat for the moment, whilst the current team enjoys their success in Helsinki.


The Czechs wanted more than bronze going into this tournament, but it wasn't to be for the Czechs. Following their semi final loss to Slovakia, they managed to retain enough spirit and desire in order to take the bronze medal away from the hosts, and bring back a piece of glory from a so-so tournament, although the place in the limelight appears to be for their eastern neighbours.

The Czechs celebrate their bronze
The first period of their game saw the Czechs play probably their best hockey of the tournament, as they put the Finns to the sword, scoring three times in the opening frame. Both teams traded chances in the early going, with the game taking on a fast and furious pace, but the Czechs would open the scoring through Petr Průcha. The SKA St. Petersburg forward managed to get a piece of a Lukáš Krajíček point shot on the powerplay which deflected it away from Petri Vehanen and into the goal. However, despite their poor play, the Finns managed to equalise in the seventeenth minute, as Miko Pyorala scored a beautiful goal, beating Krajíček all ends up before firing the shot past Jakub Štěpánek. It only took 29 seconds for the Czechs to re-gain the lead though, as Jiří Novotny's willingness to get the puck on net saw it squeak between Vehanen's pad and the post. Just under two minutes later the score went to 3:1, this time the goal coming from Boston Bruins forward David Krejčí. The goal resulted as a result of some beautiful one touch passing between Krejčí and Aleš Hemský, luring Vehanen out of position before the Bruins forward tapped the puck into the empty goal.

Petr Nedvěd holds the bronze aloft
There was little of note in the second period, as the game lulled following the frantic first period, but the third period saw the Czechs almost throw the bronze medal through their ill-discipline. With Jakub Nakladal in the box in the 49th minute, the Finns pulled a goal back through Jussi Jokinen, who split the defence with his blistering speed, before firing high into the top corner. The Czechs only mustered one shot on goal in the third period, compared to Finland's thirteen, but Štěpánek stood tall, and despite Finland's best attempts, the Czechs held on to grab their second bronze medal in succession, to the delight of tournament debutants Petr Nedvěd and Petr Fránek, separated by almost twenty years in age.

It remains to be seen whether or not Alois Hadamczik is the man to lead the Czechs back to the promised land after their 2010 gold medal, but there are plenty of positives that the Czechs can take from this tournament. With Lev Praha now officially in the KHL, prepare to see many of this Czech team lacing up for the new KHL side over the coming years.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

World Championships: Slovak delight. Czech heartache

Apologies for the lack of updates during the last month or so. University's been consuming most of my time.

It's always a shame that the IIHF World Championships always come smack bang in the middle of exam season, and whilst many fans have been bemoaning the ludicrous ticket prices which have left thousands of empty seats at every game, for the fans of Slovakia and the Czech Republic, this years edition of the World Championships have been on the whole positive ones. Whilst Slovakia, who have already guaranteed a medal for the first time since 2003, they go into the final hoping to repeat the great team of 2002, which managed to defy the odds to defeat the Russians 4:3, thanks to a Peter Bondra goal 100 seconds from the end. The Czechs, who fell to their next door neighbours in the semi final will look to pick up their second bronze medal in succession, following their third consecutive semi final appearance. It was a bitter blow for Alois Hadamczik's team, who went into Saturday's game with Slovakia as favourites, but it was another good performance from a Czech team still reeling from the loss of three stalwarts in the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl tragedy in September.

Miroslav Šatan has three goals in knockout play
Photo: Jeff Vinnick -
Slovakian hockey has been in the doldrums for some time. Fourth place at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver was the anomaly on the last four years, as the national team failed to make the quarter finals in four successive years from 2008 to the home tournament in 2011. However, new head coach Vladimir Vůjtek appears to be just what the team needed, following the failure of the Glen Hanlon experiment. Vůjtek, who called Slovakia's run in Helsinki the greatest achievement of his coaching career so far, has the team playing a no nonsense counter-attacking style, no doubt in part due to the discovery of former Lev Poprad and future Donbass Donetsk netminder Ján Laco as the country's new #1 netminder for the World Championships. Granted, barring injury Jaroslav Halák will still be the go to guy, but Laco has been in imperious form throughout the tournament, with numerous comparisons being made to the role that Ján Lašák played in the 2002 gold medal victory in Sweden.

Slovakia face Russia in the final
Photo: Andre Ringuette -
There is no doubt that there is an incredible belief in the Slovakian camp, and they seem united in achieving success in the memory of one person in particular. Former national team captain Pavol Demitra. There was hardly a dry eye in Slovakia following the emotional scenes of his exit from the national team stage in Bratislava in 2011, and the loss of what many saw as a national hero following his incredible performances in the 2010 Olympics has seemed to galvanise the team. Captain Zdeno Chára said in an interview that the semi final win against the Czechs was for Demitra, whilst Branko Radivojevič, who has looked a brand new player in this years tournament, with 8 points in 8 games, proudly showed off his Demitra memorial t-shirt that he wears under his jersey following the game against the Czech Republic. Sport has a strange, almost mystical power at being to unite people during times of trouble, and seeing the celebrations following the victory, from Bratislava to Košice, Prešov to Čadca are truly remarkable.

The Czechs had their ups and their downs
Photo: Andre Ringuette -
While stories will be written in the weeks to come about the Slovakian team, whether or not they defeat the heavily favoured Russians, it would be unfair to overlook the Czech Republic, who played some great games in the tournament, and have no doubt missed a number of key players. The omission of Jaromir Jágr is a big one, whilst Roman Červenka, Filip Novak, Jakub Klepiš and Marek Kvapil all ruled themselves out of contention through injury or fatigue following a gruelling Gagarin Cup final in the KHL. It took a while for the Czechs, and especially Petr Nedvěd to get going in the tournament, and at times the team seemed to be rather disjointed, but a couple of players made a name for themselves in the World Championships this year. České Budějovice netminder Jakub Kovář, whose NHL rights are still held by the Philadelphia Flyers, emerged as a very solid netminder at this level. He still had a tendency to concede soft goals at inopportune times, but Budějovice may have a tough time keeping a hold of him if KHL or even the Flyers come looking, despite Kovář having a contract for next season.

Will Jakub Kovář stay with České Budějovice?
Photo: Andre Ringuette -
The Achilles heel for the Czechs was their inability to score goals at the key times, and their powerplay at times looked toothless. They had enough chances against Slovakia, and were desperately unlucky at times, hitting the post twice in the opening period of the semi final, but they struggled to put the puck against the net. They only managed one goal against the top two seeds, Russia and Sweden in the preliminary group stage, whilst they needed a shootout to defeat the spirited Norwegian team which also made the quarter finals. The quarter final against Sweden was a great performance in what was arguably the game of the tournament so far, as Milan Michálek's winner 29 seconds from the end sent millions of Czech fans into raptures following their capitulation in the middle of the game. However, it was another year of what could of been for the Czech Republic, as they bowed out from the semi finals for the second year in succession. No doubt questions will be asked following the poor performance against Slovakia, but considering they finished ahead of Sweden, Canada and the United States, they should not be too down following this tournament, and Hadamczik should be given time to build his team.

However, this tournament appears to be about Slovakia now. For a team which has five Czech Extraliga and five Slovak Extraliga players on their roster to make the World Championships final is an incredible achievement, especially following the losses of top pairing defenceman Dominik Graňák and forward Marcel Hossa. This tournament can't be a flash in the pan though, as the Olympics were, as youth hockey in Slovakia is struggling enough as it is. I know I tend to straddle both sides of the rivalry between the Czechs and the Slovaks, but there is nothing that I want more than for both teams to succeed, and to be great forces within ice hockey. The rivalry can be nasty at times, but for many people, Czechs and Slovaks are still like brothers.

The Czechs go into the bronze medal game against a Finland side that was humiliated against the Russians, and surely they will have more national pride than to play poorly again in front of their home fans. It is always difficult to get motivated for a bronze medal game, but the Czechs have their chance to bring back a medal for the third year in succession. It's going to be incredibly tough for Slovakia to defeat Russia this evening, but they've already shown against the U.S, Canada and the Czech Republic that they relish the role of being the underdog. History is often to said to repeat itself, and it is only fitting that ten years later, back in Scandinavia, Slovakia have a chance to pick up their second gold medal since becoming an independent country. The Czechs already have six, including an Olympic gold. The Slovaks see it as their chance to close the gap between the two countries and get their fair share.