KOSICE – Having had to settle for silver the past two seasons, HC Kosice were destined to break the trend. The Slovak giants needed seven games to dispose of HK Nitra but claimed supremacy again for the first time since 2012 after a commanding 6-0 victory in the all-decisive final playoff game.
“Finally we put the series to an end and we can enjoy the celebrations,” said a jubilant Peter Bartos. “We were playing with loads of pressure on our shoulders after losing game 6, but we were able to mobilize our squad and show our strength again.”
The lopsided result in game 7 came to a surprise for Kosice faithful on and off the ice. Despite being the series favourites after winning the regular season, they needed two shoot-out and one overtime victory to win their previous three games. Not a comforting thought if you have a weak heart going into game 7.
Luckily for them, HK Nitra, who had the chance to win their first ever championship, seemed to be overwhelmed by nerves as well.
Four minutes into the game Kosice took the lead thanks to a Tomas Marcinko goal after Nitra failed to clear the puck. The former NY Islanders prospect positioned himself well in front of goal taking a slap in the back from a defenseman while lifting the puck over the out stretched body of goaltender Robert Kristan.
Nitra rebounded strongly and had two glorious opportunities to tie the game but on both occasions Rostislav Stana stood tall in the Kosice net.
Their lack of efficiency came at a high price. Less than a minute into the second period the Nitra defence once again looked anything but solid and had Tomas Hrnka in alone on goal. The 22-year-old forward made no mistake and doubled the lead.
Forced to open up their game, Nitra piled up defensive mistakes of which the Kosice squad took full advantage. Halfway the second period they had ran up the score to 5-0 thanks to goals of Radek Deyl, Peter Sojcik and Matej Cesik.
With the game beyond them, HC Kosice was able to play out the third period under the roaring noise of their home supporters. The icing on the cake came after 45 minutes when once again Nitra failed to clear a puck in their own zone, leaving Cesik with a free shot on which he beat Vlastimil Lakosil who had come on in relief of Kristan.
As the clock winded down, the fans started a standing ovation for the new Slovak champions. “It’s such a wonderful feeling being in such an atmosphere,” coach Anton Tomko revealed afterwards. “We dominated from this game from the very first minute and the support from the sold out arena drove us forward.”
A seventh goal would have made things near perfect since the number seven was pre-dominant in Kosice. With the cup back in the steel city after the seven game series, Kosice added their seventh ever Slovak league title only trailing Slovan Bratislava who are now playing in the KHL by one.
Apart from that the 2013/2014 season marked the seventh consecutive time HC Kosice reached the finals of which four were won.
Veteran Martin Strbak played in all seven of those. At the age of 39 and pending retirement, the three time World Championship medallist was forced to watch the game off the ice as a hard check caused a broken skull. “I was a bit afraid that they guys would not be able to perform under the immense pressure,” he admitted. “But in the end they delivered a marvelous performance and played their hearts out. If I had realized the symbolism I wouldn’t have worried. After all seven is my lucky number,” he joked.
While the Kosice players tumbled over each other, Nitra grouped together on the other end of the ice wondering what went wrong. They had never come so close to a Slovak championship as this year and proved worthy opponents during the finals in which they tied up the series three times.
Having let go of their emotions, rationale kicked in with the Nitra players who realized the value of their performance this season. “Throughout the series we made too many individual errors. Against this Kosice team such can’t be afforded,” Henrich Ruckay said. “Currently this loss hurts, but I’m convinced that in due time we can be very proud of what we achieved”.
For Michal Novak the period of grief will probably take a bit longer. The defencemen left Kosice for Nitra this season hoping to finally win a gold medal after consecutive silvers. It wasn’t to be and that fact left him quite bemused and outspoken.
“I’m extremely disappointed right now. I did not want to lose my third straight playoff final. After two periods it was clear the result was irreversible, a fact hard to accept for me in the third period. I already have silver medals and hate it to be always on the losing end,” Novak lamented.
He will nevertheless be somewhat comforted by the fact that the city of Nitra decided to honour the team for their efforts and city promotion. The local council announced to pay out a €15,000 bonus and promised to seriously look into renovating their arena.
“The reward for everyone on this team is not only due to their historic achievement but also for re-energizing hockey in Slovakia in general,” Nitra mayor Jozef Dvonc spoke publically.
For the Kosice players there’s an additional present to be unwrapped next season in the form of a guaranteed spot in the new Champions Hockey League. Gaining this ticket has been one of the team’s main objectives this season. HC Kosice is the second team from a non-founding league, Stavanger Oilers is the other, to receive a wild card to play against teams from the major European leagues.