Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Around The Boards #1: Time to play the game

Welcome to Around The Boards, Velvet Hockey’s new weekly digest out every Wednesday giving the lowdown on all the biggest news from the Czech Republic and Slovakia. With the hockey season in its embryonic stages, today’s ATB takes a look at Slovan’s scintillating start, Kladno’s new life in the 1.liga and a brief Slovak Extraliga season.

Slovan Bratislava flying high on the road
Three games, three wins. Slovan have started in top gear
It is fair to say that last season was somewhat of a disappointment for Slovan Bratislava. The team impressed in their debut season in the KHL, before crashing to eventual Gagarin Cup champions Dinamo Moscow, but last year Slovan struggled to gain any sort of momentum and missed out on the postseason. The team has strengthened, especially defensively, during the offseason, and it looks like a new lease of life has been given to Rostislav Čada’s team, as they currently sit third in the Western Conference with a 100% start.

Two of the keys to Slovan’s hot start have been new signings Ladislav Nagy and Johan Backlund. Nagy, who split last season with HC Košice and Jokerit in the Finnish Liiga, signed for the club after making his return to the Slovak national team after a three year absence. Somewhat of a journeyman since his return from the NHL, Nagy appears to be enjoying an Indian summer as the 35 year old has found the back of the net four times in three days. He had the best debut possible for his new team, scoring a hattrick at the Slovnaft Arena as Slovan defeated Medveščak 5-2 in their opening game.

Nagy would also score the game winner for Slovan against reigning Gagarin Cup champions Metallurg Magnitogorsk, an incredible result on the road for the Slovak side. Most recently, they scraped a 3-1 victory over Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg.

Key to all three of these victories has been the performance of new Swedish goaltender, Johan Backlund. After two seasons, Slovan finally realised that they had to spend some money in order to get a quality backup for Jaroslav Janus, who has been prone to suffer from burnout due to his heavy workload during the regular season. Backlund was given the start against Medveščak and has kept his place in Slovan’s other two games so far. Whilst not the most convincing goaltender, and prone to conceding a soft goal such as Metallurg’s opener on Sunday, Backlund has been on the whole stellar, and a 93.2% save percentage is nothing to sniff at. I will admit that when his signing was announced, I was rather wary following his disappointing numbers for Vityaz Podolsk last season, but the 33 year old Swede is proving both me and other doubters wrong with his play so far.

Slovan will be looking to keep up their good form today as they face Ak Bars Kazan in the final game of their opening three game Russian road trip. The side from Bratislava should enter the game with little fear though, as they have a good record over their Tatar opposition, however, one should bank on the game going to overtime, as all of the games over the last two years between the two teams have ended equal after 60 minutes.

Drop that puck
HK Poprad kicked off the SK Extraliga
season with a 4-2 win over HK Orange 20
League action is finally underway in both the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The Slovak Extraliga kicked off with a game between HK Orange 20 and Poprad, who just about managed to gain entry back into the league after another summer of financial problems. They were given an extension to apply for their Extraliga licence, and fortunately the club from the Tatras managed to complete all their obligations in time. Poprad ran out 4-2 winners with Tomáš Sýkora bagging a hattrick. Marquee summer signing Luboš Bartečko, Lev Poprad’s captain back in 2011/12, added two assists on his return to the Slovak Extraliga.

It has been somewhat a stranger summer in the Slovak Extraliga, and a number of veterans have returned to their native land. Dukla Trenčín, rebuilding after a disasterous year where they finished ninth last season, picked up former Slovak national team regular Branko Radivojevic, as well as signing former Extraliga winning goaltender, Branislav Konrád, looking to get his career back on track after Slovan had to leave him behind in their jump to the KHL. Richard Lintner also returns after splitting last season with Dukla and Dinamo Minsk.

Other big signings in the Slovak Extraliga this summer include Milan Kytnar moving to Banska Bystrica, Radoslav Illo returning from seven years in North America to sign for Martín and Žilina’s signing of Jaroslav Kristek.

Košice look favourites to win the Extraliga, although one would be remiss to ignore Nitra. Jozef Stümpel was in fantastic form last season, scoring 67 points and leading Nitra to the Extraliga finals, where they eventually lost in seven games to Košice. Now 42 years of age, Stümpel signed on late in the summer for another season with his hometown club, with the hope of delivering Nitra its first Extraliga title.

Kladno start off life in the 1.liga with a win
Jaromir Jágr behind the bench at Most
Photo: Tomáš Kostečka,
There has been a lot of soul searching at Kladno over the summer, as the Knights (Rytiři) have been licking their wounds following their relegation from the Extraliga in rather calamitous circumstances. Team owner Jaromir Jágr was on the bench as Kladno began their promotion campaign in Northern Bohemia, where they took on Most. A third period brace from Jan Eberle helped Kladno secure a 5-1 victory on the road.

It has been a summer of change for Kladno, not least as captain of seven seasons, Pavel Patera, left the club to keep his Extraliga career alive with new boys HC Olomouc. Tomáš Kaberle’s return to the NHL also leaves a massive void in the defensive unit, as does Třinec’s signing of the Doudera brothers.

News in Brief:
In some of the least surprising news ever, Slavia today announced that top scorer and all round good guy Jaroslav Bednář will be the team’s captain for the coming Extraliga season after Petr Kadlec left for Plzeň. The 37 year old forward, who angered the Sešívani whilst still a youngster after making the cross city switch to Sparta, will start his ninth season with Slavia with the C on his jersey after being an alternate captain last season. (source)

ŠHK 37 Piešťany president Jaroslav Lušňák announced this week that the EBEL was now a “closed door” for the club. Piešťany are the Slovak Extraliga’s newest club, having joined the Slovak top tier two seasons ago and have taken like a duck to water, reaching the playoff semi-finals twice in two years. Whilst still plugging away in the 1.liga ŠHK 37 attempted for three seasons to gain entry to the EBEL, only to be denied permission by the Slovak Federation. “It certainly would not have been a bad thing that we would have represented the whole of Slovakia, but what happened, happened, and we are happy we can play in the Extraliga”, added Lušňák. Piešťany also felt the financial pinch over the offseason, and budgets look to be lower there for the coming season. (source)

HC Olomouc have strengthened once more following my preview three weeks ago that pencilled them in to finish bottom of the Extraliga table. Petr Fiala's team have just announced they have penned a deal with Slovak forward Martin Cíbak, who split last season with Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk and Vityaz Podolsk of the KHL, scoring 15 points in 54 games. Cibak has represented Slovakia at two World Championsips and was a member of the 2010 Olympic roster. (source)

Finally, all signs are pointing towards Martin Ručinský signing on for one more season with Litvinov. A number of Czech journalists on Twitter today have confirmed Ručinský's signing. The 43 year old played 45 times for Litvinov last season, scoring 27 points. He looks set to join Jiří Šlegr on the North Bohemian team's roster. (source)

Watch the Czech Extraliga live…For free!
The Czech Extraliga is arguably the best for live free streaming in the whole hockey world, as every Extraliga game is streamed live, for free on their media platform ( The quality of the live picture has improved year on year, and there are commentators present at every game. It is already the best hockey in the world, and it is a bonus that they provide such a good service for fans. These streams are not locked geographically and no sign up is required!

This week's pick of the action
Wednesday: Ak Bars Kazan vs Slovan Bratislava (16:30 GMT)
Friday: Třinec vs Pardubice (17:20 GMT)
Sunday: Nitra vs Piešťany (16:00 GMT)
Tuesday: Slovan Bratislava vs Severstal Cherepovets (18:00 GMT)

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