PARDUBICE, Czech Republic – The playoff script reads like a fairy tale. In the end HC Pardubice ended the dreams of Kometa Brno with a 5-1 victory in game 6 to capture the Czech Extraliga.
Barely three minutes into the second period with the score tied 1-1, defenceman Vaclav Benak broke the deadlock with his first goal of the season. It was worth the wait as eventually the goal ended up as being the championship-winning goal.
“It’s unbelievable,” Benak said. Never a prolific goal scorer in his career, he hadn’t been tortured by such a lengthy goal drought as this season. Playing his 65th game of the season, Benak took a blast from the right point to put his team in the lead. “When the puck hit the net I first thought it couldn’t be true, it was like I was dreaming.”
The early second period goal seemed to have paralysed Kometa Brno, who suddenly collapsed and dug themselves a hole when they gave up another goal scored by Petr Koukal while being down two men.
Still in the middle stanza, Thomas Zohorna made it 4-1 before Jan Kolar capped the scoring with his fourth goal of the playoffs.
Brno’s recapitulation didn’t come totally unexpected. The team only qualified for the playoffs via winning a playoff qualifier game and then surprisingly knocked out top seeds Sparta Prague and HC Plzen. While also performing admirably against HC Pardubice, the tank slowly got empty and injuries took their toll. In game six of the series coach Zdenek Venera had to juggle his line-up which only consisted out of 15 healthy skaters.
Pardubice’s strength this season was that they could roll four strong lines on the ice without any glaring weaknesses. The roster held a good mix between experience and youth and could rely on a solid defence all season long. On top of that goaltender Martin Ruzicka had a break-out year and played himself outside the shadow of the legendary Dominik Hasek, who was in net when Pardubice grabbed its previous title back in 2010.
The 24-year-old netminder claimed a starting role this season and had a perfect mentor in former national team goaltender Dusan Salficky. While some might think veteran Salficky would be disappointed by the lack of ice time, he proved to play an important role off the ice.
“After I got criticised for some poor performances earlier in the season, Dusan dug me out the hole I was in,” Ruzicka reveals. “We lived together and talked a lot. He helped me clearing my head when I had an important game coming up. We really built up a strong relationship together.”
Almost Pardubice’s dreams were shattered at a much earlier stage. In their quarter-final series against Vitkovice Ostrava, they needed an overtime goal in game seven to advance. Three wins in a row in the semi-finals were enough to overcome a 2-1 deficit against Bili Tygri Liberec before the same pattern played out in the finals.
After Pardubice had won game 1 in overtime, Kometa Brno came back with two wins themselves. That could have been three if not for Jan Kolar’s goal in a penalty shoot-out in game four.
No one knows what would have happened if Brno had won game four on home ice, but for sure it would have severely increased the chances for a Kometa miracle. Finishing eighth after the regular season, the team owned by former player Libor Zabransky was not expected to be much of a nuisance in the post-season. But after they knocked out the two top-seeded teams in the playoffs, Kometa Brno became everyone’s favourite.
In the end they fell short against a better team, but after having been forced to play in the second tier of Czech hockey for over a decade until the 2009/10 season, Kometa’s large fan base finally had something to cheer about.
“Gold was within reach, but finishing second still is a great success,” Zabransky commented.
On the day after, when the players had to admit defeat, the city organized a season farewell party on the Liberty Square in Brno. There nearly 5,000 fans caused a blue-white sea of scarves and banners and saluted the players who went from losers to heroes within 24 hours.
The 2011-12 Extraliga season therefore ended up with one title, but two winners as both teams went into the off-season happily ever after. Just as a fairy tale is supposed to end.
- HC Pardubice’s title was their third in seven years and sixth overall in history.
- The final series was extra special to the Zohorna family with two brothers facing each in the quest for gold. In the end 24-year-old Thomas gained bragging rights over his three years younger brother Hynek, who made his Extraliga debut this season.
- Success attracts. Shortly after winning the title HC Pardubice fans learned that the squad will see some fundamental changes. Having built up a strong chemistry together in a Pardubice jersey, experienced forwards Jan Kolar and Petr Koukal are aiming for a contract in the KHL. Koukal’s departure would mean he leaves the team he has served for 11 seasons and won three championships with. “I need a change of scenery. Finishing my Pardubice era with a title is a sweet memory.”
- Tears yesterday, joy today. After having lost the Extraliga playoff finals, Kometa Brno defenceman Jiri Vasicek announced he will wear the Pardubice jersey next season. With his move he returns to his roots. Vasicek hails from Pardubice and played junior hockey there before he spent five-and-a-half seasons with Slavia Prague.
- It was an emotional moment when Vladimir Sicak hoisted the Extraliga trophy above his head. Shortly before the start of the final series, Sicak learned his father had passed away. “It was hard at times to concentrate on hockey,” the defenceman said afterwards. “I believe in destiny, what had to happen happened. My father wanted us to win the title and we did,” an emotional Sicak said when dedicating the title to his father.