(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.