They had waited more than half a century to win the title in 2017, and just a year later Kometa Brno has repeated as Czech Extraliga champions, defeating Ocelari Trinec in five games in the finals. Trinec won the first game on home ice before Kometa won four straight, culminating in a 4-1 victory in Trinec in Game 5 to take the series by the same score.
“Great joy, relief, all mixed together,” Leos Cermak, Kometa’s 40-year-old captain, told the team website of his emotions when it was all over. “The fatigue goes aside, but it's a beautiful feeling and I'm happy for the boys and for Brno. We managed to repeat the last year's fairy tale – it's a beautiful feeling.”
“We just have such a great group of players,” club owner, general manager and head coach Libor Zabransky said when asked about the key to his team’s success. “We’re like a family and I think that can be seen on the ice. It certainly helped that we didn’t change the lineup too much (from last year).”
Indeed, the lineup was much the same, with the notable exception of the loss of Marek Kvapil, the team’s leading scorer from last season. That slack was picked up by more games from Martin Erat (who had another productive season in addition to captaining the Czech team at the Winter Olympics), a full season with offensive defenceman Jakub Krejcik (who was acquired late last season) and a more offensively potent Martin Necas, now 19, who started the year with the Carolina Hurricanes but returned to Kometa in late October and stayed with the team the rest of the way. Ondrej Nemec was once again solid on the blueline and Marek Ciliak reliable in net.
As was the case last season, Kometa looked at times during the regular season like they were capable of winning it all and struggled mightily at other times. They finished fifth in the regular season, but then breezed through the quarter-finals and finals, sweeping fourth-placed Vitkovice Ostrava and then toppling first-placed Skoda Plzen in five games. Their opponent in the finals was Trinec, who had finished third in the regular season before beating Dynamo Pardubice and Hradec Kralove HK.
Trinec was strong in the first game with a 5-1 win on home ice, but Kometa tied the series the following day winning 3-2, thanks to two goals from Jan Hruska.
Game 3 in Brno was the critical swing game of the series and Kometa jumped out to a 2-0 lead after 27 minutes, electrifying the home fans. Trinec pushed back in a big way, however, to tie the score before the end of the second period and seemed to have momentum on their side, but Ciliak was brilliant in goal, stopping 25 of 27 shots. In the third period, the momentum swung back Kometa’s way and Cermak found Tomas Vincour for the game-winning goal with under 13 minutes to play. A 5-2 win the following night put them on the brink of winning it all.
Kometa travelled to Trinec for Game 5 smelling blood and Radim Zohorna swept in a rebound just 25 seconds in to put them ahead. Two more goals before the end of the first period put the title firmly within their grasp. While Ciliak’s shutout was broken midway through the third period, Radim’s brother Hynek Zohorna’s empty-netter put the exclamation point on the victory.
“It's a wonderful feeling, but I think last year it was as hard as this year,” Zabransky said after the last game was over. “We had to face great teams, great players and great fans. Each series was a bit different, just like last year.”
The Brno-based club that is now known as Kometa was founded in 1953 and quickly rose to become a powerhouse, winning 11 Czechoslovak titles in 12 years from 1955 to 1966 and three straight European championships from 1966 to 1968. There was then a long stretch of mediocrity in which the club dropped two divisions and came back up to the top, before winning the two most recent Czech titles. With 13 domestic titles, Kometa Brno passes Dukla Jihlava as the most decorated Czech club currently in existence.
“We talked about it with the boys,” Cermak acknowledged. “It's just a cherry on top of the cake to be able to say that we’ve won the most titles. It's a great honour to be part of something like this.”
Losing its claim to the most titles was only the beginning of the bad news for Jihlava on Sunday, which was also the last day of the Czech league’s four-team promotion-relegation tournament, known as “the barrage”. Jihlava defeated Energie Karlovy Vary – who had already advanced – by a score of 3-2, but it wasn’t enough for them as HC Litvinov defeated Rytiri Kladno 5-2. The result of those two games means that Karlovy Vary and Litvinov will play in the Extraliga next season, while Jihlava and Jaromir Jagr’s Kladno team will play in the second-tier WSM Liga.
Jagr, who made international news when he returned to play for Kladno late in the season, sustained a knee injury late in the regular season, played only a few shifts in the WSM Liga playoffs and did not appear at all in the barrage.