Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Around The Boards #2: Unlikely Leaders

Welcome to the second edition of Around The Boards, Velvet Hockey’s weekly digest giving the lowdown on all the biggest news from the Czech and Slovak hockey worlds. Both the Czech and Slovak Extraligas got underway over the weekend, and there are some unlikely faces at the top of both leagues. However, the weekend was a tragic one with Slovak hockey.

Slovakia still coming to terms with tragedy
Miroslav Hlinka
It is with great sadness that despite the great action on the ice this weekend, I begin this week’s Around The Boards dealing with events that have taken place away from hockey. The Slovak hockey world is without three major figures this week, as two former players and the long-serving Slovak national team doctor Vladimir Luptak passed away. Velvet Hockey discussed this in depth on Monday, following the details of the suicide of former Nitra player Miroslav Kováčík, two days after Miroslav Hlinka also took his own life. Hlinka, a World Champion with Slovakia in 2002, was due to take up the assistant coach’s role at Banska Bystrica.

The news has resulted in a large amount of soul-searching in both countries, as fans and officials alike attempt to come to terms and ascertain the reasons behind the tragedy. No news has been forthcoming since Velvet Hockey posted its reaction to the deaths on Monday. 

Slovan quickly unravelling
Slovan Bratislava got off to a fantastic start to their third KHL campaign. Velvet Hockey waxed lyrically about the KHL’s sole Slovak participant, after the won their first three games of the season. However, the wheels have come off somewhat this week, as losses to Ak Bars Kazan, Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod and Severstal Cherepovets, the latter of which was a dire 3-0 defeat on home ice.

Ladislav Nagy continues to lead the line, having scored five times in six games, but the likes of Michal Vondrka, Rok Tičar and Tomáš Surový have flattered to deceive in front of goal. Jaroslav Janus got his first action of the season in Slovan’s shootout loss to Torpedo, and acquitted himself well, but looked average in their capitulation to Severstal, which leads me to believe that Johan Backlund will start for Slovan’s next game against CSKA Moscow, which comes after a brief four game break. Slovan will be boosted by the return from injury of new defenceman Kurtis Foster, who played for Medveščak Zagreb last season.

Cancelled games cause problems in CZ and SK

Banska Bystrica got the game postponed, but
Zvolen were awarded the three points
Photo: TASR
The first weekend in the Czech and Slovak Extraligas brought some peculiarities, including two games that were postponed whilst in play. In Slovakia, Zvolen hosted Banska Bystrica on the first gameday of the season, but the game was postponed with only ninety seconds to go due to flares let off by the Banska Bystrica fans as Zvolen led 4-3. It was a miraculous comeback by Zvolen, who had been 3-0 down in the third period, and as tensions ran high in the Banska Bystrica fan section. The smoke from the flares which were set off covered the ice in smoke, and despite the officials giving an hour’s grace, the smoke would not dissipate. Vladimír Baluška, one of the referees, said in an interview, “We saw how the smoke spread and the situation is unusual and dangerous meaning we had to interrupt the game as we have to protect the player’s health. This is the first time we have encountered such a situation.” The SZLH ruled later that the result would stand, handing Zvolen the 3 points. (source)

Unplayable conditions at the Kajot Arena
Photo: Ivo Dostal
Lack of visibility was also the culprit at the Kajot Arena in Brno, as Kometa’s game against PSG Zlin, which was being broadcast live on the major sport channel in the Czech Republic (ČT Sport) was brought to a halt after just 13 minutes. A warm September in both the Czech Republic and Slovakia has made mist a problem in many arenas. The fog was especially bad at the end where Kometa were attacking, and Zlin’s goaltender Libor Kašík was notably animated. There was no score in the game before it was postponed.

Zlín still without a win
Libor Kašík hits the deck in Zlín's season opener
Photo: Jiří Zaňát
The cancelled game at the Kajot Arena has left Zlín in a rather sorry state, as the defending Extraliga champions currently sit in 13th place after three gamedays. The Moravian side started the season in perhaps the worst possible way, looking average as Extraliga new boys Mladá Boleslav humiliated them 5-2 at the Zimni stadion Luďka Čajky. It didn’t get much better on Tuesday, as other Extraliga newcomers HC Olomouc, defeated their Moravian rivals to claim their first Extraliga win under their belt. Zlín went 2-0 up in the first period through goals from Bedřich Köhler and new signing Roman Vlach, but Olomouc rallied back in the third second period to take an unassailable 3-2 lead. Defensively, Zlín look fragile, and that’s not something that you would have thought after they retained all of their defensive unit bar Petr Zamorský. Certainly more will be expected from last season’s top Extraliga goalie Libor Kašík, who has conceded eight goals in two games and a save percentage well below 90%

Litvinov and Mladá Boleslav impress, while Sparta splutter
The first three gamedays have left my Extraliga preview looking rather silly, as two of the teams that I had pencilled in to finish in the bottom four, are in first and third place respectively. Whilst Zlín’s goaltending has been a problem, current league leaders Litvinov have arguably the best goaltender in the Czech Republic. Pavel Francouz, who was Litvinov’s one shining light in a dreadful season last year, has continued his fine form, picking up three wins out of three. The 24-year old shutout bottom of the table Karlovy Vary in the first game, before shutting up shop in the shootout as the side from North Bohemia defeated both Plzeň and Třinec. Both victories are massive scalps for a side desperate to get back into the playoffs.

Mladá Boleslav yet to lose in the Extraliga this year
Photo: Jan Pavlíček,
Despite all of their summer signings, it is the old boys at Mladá Boleslav who are leading the charge. The 1.liga champions have taken to the Extraliga like a duck to water, and have won two games out of three in what was an incredibly tricky start to their return to the Czech top flight. Their aforementioned win against Zlín was followed by a loss in Pardubice, but on Monday the side got their first win against Sparta at the Tipsport Arena in their history. Former Sparta captain Michal Broš had a goal and an assist and Tomáš Klimenta bagged a brace as Mladá Boleslav battled to a 4-3 victory. Tomáš Hyka and Dominik Pacovský have struggled to adapt to their new surroundings though, as Mladá Boleslav’s two major summer acquisitions only have one point between them so far.

Sparta’s loss to Mladá Boleslav sums up what has been a so-so start to the season. Despite sitting top of an extremely tight Group G in the Champions Hockey League, Sparta have already lost two games this season, with Mountfield Hradec Kralove picking up a solid 3-1 victory on home ice against last season’s regular season champions. The pieces are there but it doesn’t seem that Josef Jandáč has worked out how best to use his abundance of talent. As defenceman Michal Barinka said following the loss to Mladá Boleslav, “We have to start from zero. The results will come.” Sparta will be hoping that the results will come, especially with the first Prague derby of the season being on Sunday.source)

Zvolen leading the way
In Slovakia, the surprise league leaders after four games is Zvolen, who are the only team in both countries to still have a 100% record. In front of goal, Zvolen have been imperious, netting 13 times in the three games. Most remarkably, the team already has twelve different goal scorers to its name, as Andrej Podkonický is the only player to have found the back of the net twice. Despite their loss to Zvolen, Poprad are currently in second place, a remarkable achievement for a club dogged by financial uncertainty. The side from the Tatras has gone through a number of difficult years especially following the failed Lev Poprad project, are at least doing the business on the ice. Tomáš Sýkora already has three goals to his name. Defending champions Košice sit in third place after three games where they have only conceded eight goals.

Player of the week: 
Michal Hlinka
Michal Hlinka (HK Dukla Trenčín)
Any other week would’ve been Litvinov’s goaltender Pavel Francouz, but special mention must go to Michal Hlinka, the son of Miroslav Hlinka. The 21-year old forward has dealt with the death of his father like a man far beyond his years, and continues to train and even featured for the club in Tuesday’s victory against Skalica. Richard Lintner, who plays for Dukla and was a national team teammate with Michal’s father for a number of years said, “We, Dukla, are Michal’s second family and we stand by him and will try to create the conditions to help him as a young male support his family.” All games in Slovakia were marked by a moment of silence before faceoff on Tuesday. (source)

Play of the week: Ladislav Nagy (Slovan Bratislava)
This week, we turn to the KHL and Ladislav Nagy’s beautiful coast-to-coast goal against Ak Bars Kazan. Sadly, Slovan couldn’t pick up the win, losing 4-3 in a close fought game, but this goal by Nagy will live long in the memory.

This week’s pick of the action:
Friday: Mladá Boleslav vs Litvínov (16:30 GMT)
Saturday: Slovan Bratislava vs CSKA Moscow (16:30 GMT)
Sunday: Slavia Praha vs Sparta Praha (17:20 GMT)

1 comment:

  1. Keep the news coming Jon, I really appreciate it