Monday, 18 June 2012

Czech Extraliga 2011-2012 Review - Part 2

The fallen quarter-finalists

After we looked at the sides that missed out on the playoffs, it's time to look at the teams that fell at the first stage of the Czech Extraliga playoffs. I'll be covering them in ascending order based on their league position, which means we start with the seventh placed team in the regular season....

PSG Zlín
Regular season result: 7th place (76 points)
Play in result: Defeated HC Oceláři Třinec in five games (3-2)
Playoff result: Lost to HC Plzeň 1929 in seven games (4-3)

Another great season for Petr Leška, but
another playoff disappointment for Zlín
Photo: Jiří Zaňát -
Another season of post-season disappointment for the Moravians, as they failed to advance from the first round of the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season. When looking at the table at the end of the regular season, what is most alarming is Zlín's lack of goals. They only managed to score 107 in 52 games, which was a league worst by far. New head coach Rostislav Vlach clearly built his team with defence in mind, but there is no doubt that very few would have predicted Zlín's offence to be as bad as it was. Zlín were shutout six times during the season, and simply lacked any scoring touch. Arguably the biggest flop of not only Zlín's season, but the whole Extraliga was Petr Čajánek. The 36 year old Zlín native scored 37 points in the KHL in 2010-2011, and was one of the reasons why Zlín offloaded Jaroslav Balaštík to Mlada Boleslav on loan. However, a paltry six goals through the regular season was all that Čajánek could manage. In the playoffs Čajánek gave a better account for himself, scoring nine points in twelve games, but through 48 regular season games, he could only chart 21 points. Surely considering how well Zlín played defensively, if Čajánek contributed what was expected then Zlín would have been much higher up the table. What made his form even more galling was the fact that he was named the club captain. Other disappointments were Michal Důras and Marek Melenovsky. Důras, who has been with Zlin for three seasons now seems to always show promise and then never deliver on the board, whilst the Melenovsky experiment failed spectacularly. After his rotten start to the season, Karlovy Vary loaned him out to Zlín, where he played some of his best hockey in years gone by. However, Melenovsky only managed five points in 21 games, but like Čajánek, seemed to perk up in the playoffs. Whilst he was the second top point scorer on the team, I always feel that Bedrich Köhler should be scoring more than he does. 17 goals was an impressive tally for the lanky centre, but he reminds me a lot of Slavia's protegé Vladimír Růžička jr., as they both have talent and skill in abundance, but always fail to put the points on the board. After his breakout year in 2010-2011, twenty year old forward Petr Holík had anything but a sophomore slump, bagging 11 goals this season and continuing his progress as Zlín's most promising youngster. Saying that, he can't really have a better mentor than the ageless Petr Leška. Now 36 years of age, Leška shows no sign of slowing down, as he led his team in scoring for the fourth straight year. While his point numbers were down compared to the last few years, Leška truly is PSG Zlín. Not only his he the teams first line centre, but the points they have gained through his brilliant performances in shootouts have been priceless since the introduction of the shootout as a tiebreaker. Forty points for the 36 year old and a contract for next season will do just nicely for the Moravian club. Another seemingly ageless player is Zlín's anchor at the back, Martin Hamrlík. The hometown hero, who has played every season he's played in the Czech Republic for Zlín is now 39 years of age, but yet again put in a huge effort at both ends of the ice, being the teams #1 defenceman, whilst adding 21 points. His ability to play 48 games a season at his age is remarkable, and it will be a sad day when he decides to hang them up. Still, it appears he's gone one more season in him.

Zlín, who managed to just overcome the challenge of Třinec after winning the final two games of the series went into the playoff series against second placed Plzeň with no real pressure on them, whilst Plzeň, arguably the most consistent team in the Czech Republic over the past three years went into the playoffs which huge doubts over the return of Martin Straka, as well as an aging squad. The series looked lost after two games, especially after Game 2, where Plzeň thrashed Zlín 5:1, putting young netminder Jakub Sedláček to the sword. However, a thrilling 1:0 victory on home ice, with Luboš Horčička bagging a 25 shot shutout gave Zlín some hope, which they built on through a 5:4 victory in overtime Game 4, levelling the series. Petr Čajánek bagged a second period brace, before Petr Leška pounced on a giveaway by Tomáš Vlasák, giving him an overtime breakaway with 20 seconds left in the ten minute period. A beautiful backhand move fooled backup goalie Marek Mazanec, and once again, Leška was Zlín's hero, levelling the series at two. Game 5 took the series back to Plzeň, and it was another thriller. The teams combined for 91 shots on target, and both  Sedláček and Plzeň's starter Adam Svoboda both had brilliant games. A late Čajánek goal levelled the game at two, and an end to end overtime period resulted in no goals. Václav Pletka scored the game winning shootout goal for the home side, meaning that Zlín had to win the last two games in order to save their playoff hopes. Game 6 was one of the few times where Zlín's depth scoring came through. Ondřej  Vesely scored two second period goals, whilst Marek Melenovsky had a goal and two assists, as Zlín took a 3:0 lead through two periods, and managed to hold on to take a 4:2 victory, giving them three wins out of three on home ice, and setting up a Game 7 in Plzeň. However, it simply wasn't to be for Zlín. Both teams were level throughout the game, but a late Nicholas Johnson goal broke a 2:2 tie with just over two minutes to go. A Radek Duda empty net goal sealed Zlín's fate, and despite a brave fight, it was over for the seventh seeds Zlín. With a large amount of returning veterans, as well as the return of Jaroslav Balaštík, Zlín appear to be in good shape for next season, although the loss of Lukáš Galvas after eight seasons will be a big hole to fill on the blueline.

Player of the season: Petr Leška
It couldn't be anyone else. Leading his team in scoring in both regular season and playoff scoring, Leška not only puts points on the board, he does it when it matters most. The amount of points that Zlin have gained due to late plays or shootout goals by their diminutive leader are invaluable, and just proves what a key player he is for this team. We don't know how many years he's got in the tank, but it's almost blasphemy to imagine him playing anywhere else apart from Zlín. An absolute joy to watch, even though his career is winding down, Leška will no doubt be running his teams first line, powerplay unit and penalty kill in 2012-2013, and Zlín wouldn't have it any other way.

HC Vitkovice Steel
Regular season result: 6th place (77 points)
Playoff result: Lost to HC Pardubice in seven games (4-3)

Filip Šindelář was called upon in the playoffs
following Roman Málek's poor form
Photo: Jan Jedlička -
It was another year of what could have been for Vitkovice. They just about made it into the playoffs without the need for the stress of the play-ins, and had an extremely tight series with Pardubice, but eventually fell short in overtime of Game 7. Vitkovice were another team which lacked consistency throughout the year, as well as having a pretty rotten record against teams at the top of the table, as they lost three of four against the regular season champions, HC Sparta Praha, as well as dropping the majority of games against the rest of the playoff challengers. Vitkovice were a baffling team to watch at times, as one game they could be brilliant one day, as evidenced with their 3:2 shootout win against Sparta in late January, to then go and lose 4:2 against Karlovy Vary, and then in the next game, get thrashed by Kometa Brno 8:2. It was always a case of if one goal goes in, then more will follow, and Vitkovice had a lot of trouble keeping pucks out of their net. In goal, they had Roman Málek, whose form mirrored that of his team, whilst injuries to the likes of Karol Sloboda and Denis Rehak put pressure on the defence corps, which was heavily reliant on the former NHLer Marek Malik and Tomáš Kudělka. Vitkovice shipped the most goals out of any teams that made the post-season, and it was only really their goal scoring form which kept them in the race for playoff action. Key to Vitkovice's season, was once again, club captain Jiří Burger. Burger, like a fine wine, seems to be getting with age, as he recorded his best points tally since the 1999-2000 season, as the 35 year old racked up 56 points in the regular season, which was good enough for fourth in the league. Burger, who will begin his twelfth season for Vitkovice in September, will be hoping that his great form will continue, but it is post-season success which he, and his team, are desperate for. Burger had 9 points in the playoff series against Pardubice, but that was not enough to help his team advance. Burger was backed up by 40 year old Viktor Ujčík, who was only able to ice in 35 games this year, but still managed to bag 32 points, whilst at the opposite end of the age scale, Jan Káňa wasn't able to reach the 20 goal mark for the second year in a row, but he was able to net 18 goals, as well as 17 assists, which is not bad for a 22 year old, in what has become a bit of an old mans league. With points totals like that, KHL teams may soon be sniffing around the Ostrava native, who has yet to sign for next season. However, despite the free-scoring nature of Vitkovice's top unit, as well as valuable contributions from the likes of Ondřej Šedivý and Petr Pohl, whose numbers were down significantly from 2010-2011, Vitkovice were simply unable to stop conceding, and dropped far too many points from winning positions.

Pardubice were the opponents in the first round of the playoffs, and they arguably gave Pardubice their toughest challenge in the post-season. Three out of the seven games went beyond the sixty minute mark, with two of them going to a shootout. The big question mark surrounding the series was Roman Málek. The 34 year old netminder has so often been Pardubice's nemesis in the playoffs, and many Pardubice fans were joking that Málek would be the one to crush their hopes once more. However, after Game 1, many could be forgiven for thinking Roman who? Málek was yanked from Game 1 after conceding five goals, as Vitkovice slumped to a 5:2 defeat, after taking the lead in the first period. Pardubice were able to score quickly, in bunches, against the Ostrava side, and this was a repeating trend throughout the series. Game 2 was much tighter, as Vitkovice elected to start with Filip Šindelář in goal, and the veteran back-up certainly outdid his partner. 31 saves in a 3:2 shootout victory was just what his team needed, as Ujčík scored the winning penalty shot against Dušan Salfický, who failed in his shootout relief bid for Pardubice. Vitkovice certainly seemed to be benefiting from the Extraliga's rule of shootouts in the playoffs, as they also claimed Game 3 in a shootout; the winning shot scored by Burger. A Juraj Štefanka goal with ten seconds left in regulation sent the game to overtime, and Vitkovice were able to squeeze by, taking a 2:1 lead in the series. The Ostrava side were certainly on the Šindelář bandwagon, as he had won both Games 2 and 3, but this was soon about to change. After another solid game in Game 4, where Vitkovice lost 3:2, Šindelář and his team crumbled back in Pardubice for Game 5. Pardubice won 6:0, lighting up the 32 year old and scoring six times on 30 shots. However, Games 5 and 6 summed up Vitkovice's season perfectly, and Game 6 saw Vitkovice at their free flowing best. Málek made 41 saves in his return to action, whilst Viktor Ujčík scored a hatrick in a 6:1 which sent Pardubice back home with their tails between their legs, and setting up a thrilling Game 7. Vitkovice took the lead on four separate occasions, but each time they were pegged back by the hosts, with Martin Bartek scoring at 59:29 to tie the game at 4:4, before Daniel Rákos' overtime winner, 29 seconds into the extra frame, broke Vitkovice's hearts. It concluded what was a fantastic series full of back and forth action, and once again, it was Pardubice who had eliminated Vitkovice.

Player of the season: Jiří Burger
Despite being well into his 30s, Burger appears to be improving year on year. He had his best season in well over a decade, and took his team to the brink of the semi finals, losing to a much fancied Pardubice side. Burger was much more prolific on the goal sheet than in years gone past, as 23 goals was good for a team high, as well as tying the most goals he's scored in a season. He truly is "Mr. Ostrava", and despite being a Kladno native, he is the face of the Vitkovice franchise. Another season beckons as Vitkovice's #1 centre, and with the form he's showing, you wouldn't put it past him to better his points totals once again in 2012-2013.

HC MOUNTFIELD České Budějovice
Regular season result: 5th place (83 points)
Playoff result: Lost to HC Bili Tygri Liberec in five games (4-1)

Jakub Kovář starred for České Budějovice
and the Czech National Team
Photo: Vladimír Jína -
There were few changes to the team which finished in fifth place in the Extraliga in 2011, and for the second year in a row it was a first round exit for České Budějovice. Whilst this represents progress following two years out of the playoffs following their bronze medal in 2008, České Budějovice will be disappointed with the way they folded in the playoffs, and how their form dipped so dramatically towards the end of the season. They lost 11 of their last 14 games, which saw them go from top of the table contenders to looking over their shoulder towards the play-in spots. This form then continued into the playoffs, as the fourth seed Liberec dispatched of them in just five games, with České Budějovice outclassed in almost every game. Their last season dive mirrored the form of star netminder Jakub Kovář. Kovář, who was the starting goaltender for the bronze medal winning Czech Republic squad at the 2012 IIHF World Championships struggled in Game 1, and was eventually pulled from the game after conceding 4 goals on 20 shots through two periods. Whilst it is unfair to say that the 23 year old Pisek native had a bad series, he was simply not as good as Budějovice needed him to be. Saying that, the young shot stopper is continuing to develop each season, although it remains to be seen how much longer Kovář will remain with the team, as there are rumours of KHL teams watching him closely, while he may even be snapped up by the Philadelphia Flyers, who still retain his NHL rights. České Budějovice scored more goals than only Zlín and basement boys Mlada Boleslav, which highlights to how much Kovář and České Budějovice's defence corps were relied on. Their defensive unit, containing Slovakian Rene Vydareny and Slovenian Aleš Kranjc, who both represented their countries at the World Championships and veterans Jan Novák, Peter Mikus and František Ptáček played magnificently all season, and often carried their sides poor offence through games. České Budějovice's goal scoring form represented that of a relegation candidate, but instead of playing in the play-outs, they were in the playoffs. As already mentioned, there was little to shout about in regards to forwards, but Milan Gulaš had another stellar season. The České Budějovice native once again top scored for his home town team, bagging 42 points and impressing with his solid performances. However, it all fell apart in the playoffs, as he only managed to register a solitary assist in the five game series against Liberec. It was another disappointing playoff display for the 26 year old, who seems to have all the tools in the regular season, but come playoff time, it just doesn't happen. However, maybe a change of scenery will rectify these issues, as Gulaš has committed to HC Plzeň 1929 for 2012-2013. Gulaš' main partner in crime was veteran forward Pavel Kašpařík. The journeyman centre has bounced around a number of Extraliga teams, never really finding his groove in a single organisation, but with two seasons under his belt at České Budějovice, Kašpařík seems to be entering the form of his life. 35 points was a solid return for the big bodied forward, who made his first appearance for the Czech Republic national team since 2009. October saw the return of arguably the greatest product of the České Budějovice junior program, as NHL forward Aleš Kotalík returned home following a disastrous final two years in North America, where he spent half the season in the AHL. Kotalík, now 33 years of age, gave České Budějovice that little piece of quality which they needed, but perhaps struggled to make as much of an impact as many thought he would. 24 points in 30 games is a decent return by Extraliga standards, but coming from a player who was playing NHL hockey in 2010-2011, it does seem rather underwhelming. That seemed to be the case for many of their forwards, as they performed adequately, but not brilliantly. Players such as Lukáš KvětoňDavid Kuchejda and Jiří Šimánek put up average points totals, but really failed to shine.

As a result, a match up against Petr Nedvěd's fourth placed Liberec awaited, and things looked bleak following Game 1. Kovář was pulled halfway through the game with Liberec 4:1 up, thanks to a remarkable hatrick by youngster Michal Bulíř, and the game eventually finished 6:2 to the White Tigers, with České Budějovice seemingly on the ropes already. However, after a thrilling second game, things were all square. The teams combined for ten goals in a thrilling contest in Liberec, with Kovář bouncing back to make 42 saves, whilst Jiří Šimánek was the pick of the outskaters, scoring two goals and adding an assist in his teams victory. However, that was all the joy that the side from the south was going to have, as they appeared to have scored all of their goals for the series in Game 2. České Budějovice only managed to score twice in the remaining three games, as Marek Pinc shut up shop and had a brilliant series for Liberec. In Game 3 Pinc was perfect, saving all 31 shots he faced as Liberec came away with a 1:0 victory thanks  to Lukáš Vantuch's solitary goal, whilst Game 4 saw Petr Nedvěd dominate the game, scoring twice and adding an assist as Liberec won 3:1, and claiming the spoils in both of the games in České Budějovice. Game 5 was up in Liberec, with České Budějovice facing elimination. Things looked bleak from the go, as Nedvěd found the net once more just two and a half minutes into the first period. František Ptáček tied the game, but then three minutes later Liberec regained the lead, which they would not relinquish. Nedvěd scored once more in the third period, to give him four goals in the final two games of the series, and to crush České Budějovice's championship hopes. Once again, their lack of consistent scoring was their downfall, which sees their long championship drought stretch into a 62nd year.

Player of the season: Jakub Kovář
It's hard not to discuss Kovář when mentioning České Budějovice, as he is the one true star on that team. He is one of a number of promising young Czech netminders to come through the ranks in recent years, and has quickly established himself as one of the Extraliga's best. At only 23 years of age, he is still developing, and it is no surprise that teams from other leagues are already monitoring his progress. His performances for the Czech Republic capped off what has been a year he can be proud of, and whilst he crumbled under the pressure in Game 1 against Liberec, he can hardly be blamed for his teams defeat in the series, as České Budějovice's snakebitten offence once again failed to light the lamp on a regular basis. Kovář, who relies heavily on agility and reflexes has all the tools to be a top netminder in Europe, and with two straight seasons playing 50+ games and recording a save percentage well into the .920s, he has already shown that he is more than capable. It would be save to assume that Kovář, who has signed for 2012-2013, will be leaving the Extraliga following next season, and České Budějovice need to start finding the pieces, especially up front, to help him bring a title to South Bohemia.

HC Sparta Praha
Regular season result: 1st (107 points)
Playoff result: Lost to HC Kometa Brno in six games (4-2)

Regular season joy, but post season heartache for Sparta
Photo: Michal Eger
I think we all know that the Czech Extraliga is incredibly competitive, and it's always a struggle for first seeds to win the playoffs. In the last ten years, only two regular season champions (Sparta in 2002 and Třinec in 2011) have gone on to win the Extraliga championship. However, few would have Sparta to have fallen at the first hurdle, as they crashed out in six games to the eighth seed, HC Kometa Brno. Sparta looked sluggish following the two week break while the playoff play-ins were held, and Kometa, full of confidence after sweeping Kladno, went to work on the regular season champions. Sparta won Games 2 and 3 to take a 2:1 lead in the series, but then dropped the three remaining games to see their hopes of a first title since the 2006-2007 double crumble. It's difficult to pinpoint a reason why Sparta suffered so badly in the playoffs. The defence was nowhere near as good as it was during the regular season, where the team conceded a paltry 109 goals, but then again, they only scored three goals in the final three games of their playoff quarterfinal. It's been a bit of a rough ride for Tomáš Pöpperle through his career, but few can frown upon his performances last season. The Broumov born shot stopper had his career year with Sparta last year, as he played 46 games and led the league with a .935 save percentage, as well as having the lowest GAA figures, conceding just 2.02 goals a game. However, his figures nosedive in the playoffs, as his team crumbled around him, whilst his performances were not to the standard he had set in the regular season. Sparta boasted a wealth of defensive talent, with Michal Sersen, Radek Philipp, Jan Hanzlik, Troy Milam, Angel Krstev and former NHL tough guy David Kočí formed the best defensive unit in the country. However, a combination of incredible resilience by Kometa, and some shocking errors, such as Sersen's blunder in Game 4, where the Slovakian defenceman lost his footing on a Kometa odd man rush, giving the Brno side an easy goal which turned the tide in the series. It almost seemed like Sparta had simply given their all to claim the regular season title, stretching ahead in the final few games of the season to top the table by eight points from HC Plzeň 1929, and come playoff time, especially after the two week break, they seemed fatigued and sluggish. The forwards struggled towards the end of the series, but seemed to give a good account of themselves. Sparta boasted the best forward line in the country, as Petr Ton, Petr Tenkrát and Mario Bližňák struck fear into Extraliga defencemen. Petr Ton had the best season of his career points wise, as the 38 year old racked up 25 goals and 33 assists, bouncing back from an average 2010-2011. Ton, who also had five points in the playoffs, finished third in Extraliga scoring, and came up trumps for his side on many an occasion. Tenkrát was Sparta's big summer signing, as the 35 year old returned to the Czech Republic following a number of seasons in Scandinavia. He instantly formed a lethal partnership with Ton, and went on to bag 51 points for himself. As the season went on, and Michal Broš began to struggle, young Slovakian centre Mario Bližňák began to take his spot on the first line, and was the final piece of the points scoring puzzle, as Bližňák added 29 points, whilst also being a dogged penalty killer for the side. Sparta have done well to keep hold of two of their players, as despite major interest from HC Lev Praha, Ton and Tenkrát are set to remain with Sparta for the coming season, but it appears that Bližňák will be moving on.  Bližňák, who originally signed a two year contract with Sparta on his return from North America is set to lace up for HC Slovan Bratislava in the KHL in 2012-2013, as Sparta have agreed to allow the buy out of  Bližňák's contract by Slovan. Tomáš Pöpperle is another Sparta player making the jump to the KHL, as he joins HC Lev Praha as part of their goaltending tandem. As a replacement, Sparta have signed former netminder Marek Schwarz, who had a rotten season for TPS in the SM-Liiga in 2011-2012. It wasn't just about the veterans for Sparta in 2011-2012 though, as 22 year old winger Dominik Pacovský burst onto the scene, having a great rookie season. After two seasons away in the Western Hockey League, Pacovský struggled on his return, splitting time between Sparta and HC Berounsti Medvedi in 2010-2011, but last season saw Pacovský really make his mark. 27 points in his rookie campaign was a great showing, and it is no surprise why Sparta think very highly of the Prague native. 

Sparta went into the playoffs on the back of a shootout loss to their deadly rivals Slavia, and this form continued into Game 1, where Kometa Brno won a back and forth encounter, with the game winner coming just 67 seconds from the final buzzer, as Jakub Svoboda stole home advantage away from the top seeds, as he pounced to fire the puck past Tomáš Pöpperle. The second game of the series was crucial for Sparta, as you had the feeling that with one victory, they would regain their composure and defeat Kometa. Game 2 was filled with penalties, and once again Kometa got an early goal, only to be pegged back by Sparta. The game would go into overtime with the score at 2:2, and as the home side outshot Kometa 36:25, the pressure was truly on veteran netminder Jiří Trvaj. A shootout beckoned, and Sasu Hovi took to the crease, but once again, Petr Ton came to his sides rescue, scoring the winning penalty shot to level the series. Game 3 was at the rowdy Kajot Arena in Brno, and saw Sparta play their best hockey of the series. Kometa took a 1:0 lead into the first intermission, but Sparta dominated the second period, as Alex Foster, Petr Ton and Michal Sersen all found the back of the net. Ton added two assists in the third period to go with his goal, as linemates Bližňák and Tenkrát scored to give Sparta a 5:2 win, and a strangehold of the series. However, it all began to go wrong following their Game 3 victory. Sparta were dreadful in Game 4, mustering only 20 shots, as they crashed to a 3:1 defeat, before Game 5 in Prague saw Jiří Trvaj make 32 saves and goals from Radek Dlouhy and Leoš Čermák giving Kometa a come from behind victory and a 3:2 lead in the series. Game 5 saw Sparta make the brave decision to go with backup netminder Martin Falter, and the Slovakian made 35 saves, but couldn't do enough to give his team the victory. Game 6 was in Brno, and the Kometa fans were in jubilant mood. Sparta forced the best out of Trvaj, who made 38 saves, whilst two goals in a minute in the first period saw Sparta with a mountain to climb. Tenkrát made it 2:1 in the first minute of the second period, but couldn't grab another before Tomáš Divíšek scored to make it 3:1 late in the middle frame. Kometa would score once more, to take a 4:1 victory, and a miraculous series win. The eighth seeds had defeated the regular season champions, and Sparta's chance to grab their fifth Extraliga title vanished.

Player of the season: Petr Ton
It was a difficult decision between Ton and Pöpperle, but I've gone with "Mr. Sparta" as my pick for Sparta's player of the season. Ton, who has been with Sparta since 2003, closes in on a decade of success for the club from the capital, and the team and fans alike will be delighted that HC Lev didn't get their mitts on him. Time is running out for Ton in regards to his career, and with two Extraliga titles to his name so far, you can bet that he will do everything in order to get his third for Sparta in 2012-2013. Sparta, who trail the great Vsetin franchise in championships by two, are desperate to grab the title as most successful Extraliga team, and with Ton unlikely to go anywhere else before he hangs them up, they have a great chance. Ton's chemistry with Petr Tenkrát was invaluable to the regular season champions, and while they didn't shine as bright in the playoffs, they are still arguably the best 1-2 punch in the Extraliga for the coming season. 

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