SANOK, Poland – For the second time in three years KH Sanok has reason to celebrate. A 39-save shutout by John Murray en route to a 2-0 victory over GKS Tychy decided on the Polska Hokej Liga title which returned to Sanok after having lost it to Cracovia Krakow last season.
With Cracovia suffering from financial problems, more about this later, the title was up for grabs. GKS Tychy and KH Sanok finished the regular season as the top two teams, both making the 100+ point mark.
Both teams were dominant in the playoffs, losing just a single game on their way to the final. The real suspense was saved for the mutual series.
Having won the regular season, GKS Tychy enjoyed home ice advantage. The 2004/2005 Polish champions started off well with a 2-0 victory but then had to swallow a tough shootout loss in game 2. While the series moved to Sanok for the next two games, the outcome was the same. Sanok first lost 4-1 but rebounded from that with a commanding 7-1 win in Game 4 to tie the series at two.
A strong second period by Sanok in Game 5 paved the way to a 4-3 victory and a chance to clinch the series on home ice. A chance they did not let go wasted.
With the Sanok Arena packed with 3,000 fans, mainly dressed in white, the home team had the crowd jumping early. Just 90 seconds into the first period Marek Strzyzowski gave the home team the lead when he deflected a rebound without too much noticing it himself.
“This goal was very curious, nothing secret about it,” the goal scorer admitted afterwards. “Nevertheless it was a very important goal for us.”
Forced to play catch-up hockey, GKS Tychy upped the pressure but they couldn’t capitalize on their chances as goaltender John Murray, one of the four North American imports on the team, played a near perfect game.
Rather than tying the game, Tychy saw their deficit doubled when Martin Vozdecky buried a rebound high and dry. With Zigardy down on the ice after making consecutive stops on Peter Sinagl and Samson Mahbod attempts, Vozdecky took the loose puck and found the open space through a melee of players in the crease.
Despite pulling their goalie in exchange for an extra attacker for the final two minutes, Tychy could not find a way back into the game and eventually had to settle for silver.
“Our first goal was lucky but the second one really gave our team a confidence boost,” Sanok coach Miroslav Frycer said afterwards. Asked about the key to this title, the coach was clear. “The penalty shootout victory in Game 2 in Tychy was extremely important.”
A similar response could be heard from the Tychy dressing room were coach Jiri Sejba was pondering what went wrong. “We played very well the first three games but lacked efficiency throughout the series. Above all the damage of the shootout loss of the second game was huge. We should have won that game.”
Their second Polish championship in the team’s history was not the only silverware the team won. Canadian forward Samson Mahbod took the league’s scoring title and Martin Vozdecky’s 36 goals in 44 games were unmatched.
The team’s outlook for next season remains unclear as several key players have attracted interest from bigger leagues. Goaltender Murray has an offer from the Czech Extraliga while Mahbod could go to Austria or Germany.
Sanok entered the season after a hectic summer with several teams suffering from financial problems and threatening or being threatened not to participate.
One of them involved KH Sanok, who were finishing last season with debts and outstanding player salaries to pay. The uncertainty meant several key players left, but when the announcement came that Sanok could participate, the foundation that led to the Polish championship title was laid.
Last year’s champions Cracovia Krakow didn’t have such luck. They too were in heavy financial weather and were facing expulsion from the league. A transfer ban was handed to them resulting in their odds to retain the title became very slim.
In the end, the ban got lifted and the team received a licence to play but their season ended in the quarter-finals.
Polish hockey also mourned two sad losses. First of all there was the end of professional hockey in Sosnowiec. Having hoisted a team as of 1937 and winning the league five times, Zaglebie Sosnowiec was a household name in Polish hockey. Efforts will be made to re-instate hockey under a new debt-free organization.
Secondly, Polish hockey fans were shocked to hear about the news about Krzysztof Birula-Bialynicki who passed away at the age of 69. The former forward was one of the country’s hockey stars in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Between 1965 and 1973 he represented Poland in 110 international games including the 1972 Olympic Winter Games in Sapporo, three IIHF Ice Hockey World Championships in the top division (1966, 1970, 1973) and four participations in the World Championship B-Pool.
Bialynicki-Birula was also the founder and the first president of the women’s hockey club in Lodz.