PRAGUE – Noblesse obliges. Reigning Czech champion Slavia Prague made its first hurdle on its way to defending its title by clinching first place in the Czech Extraliga on Tuesday after a hard fought 4-3 overtime win against Kladno. With Moeller Pardubice surprisingly losing two points against Litvinov, Slavia can no longer be overtaken with one round left to play and will go into the playoffs as the top-seeded team.
“We were surprised in the locker room when we found out we finished first,” forward Jaroslav Bednar said after the game. “We assumed Pardubice had won and it would come down to the final day. It’s a big relief for us.”
Slavia Prague was one of the main contenders for the top spot this season alongside Moeller Pardubice and Sparta Prague. Their season start was impressive with a seven game undefeated streak. After 15 games, Slavia had just lost twice, and could shift its focus to the Champions Hockey League.
In a group with Swiss ZSC Lions Zurich and Swedish Linköpings HC, Slavia was on its way to qualify for the semi-finals until Zurich pulled out a 5-1 victory in Prague in the decisive group game.
The CHL games seemed to break Slavia’s Extraliga rhythm. The point advantage disappeared like snow in summer. In mid-December, they were slumping with just a pair of wins in 11 games.
On the brink of holiday season, Slavia’s fortunes turned as they found their winning form again. Nine wins in ten games set the tone that led to the regular season title. The icing on the cake is a spot in the second stage of the 2009-2010 Champions Hockey League qualification.
“We led the league for a long time this season,” said defenceman Karol Sloboda. “It would be bad if we had failed to keep that position in at the end of the season.”
The team management was thrilled with the inaugural edition of the CHL and was eager to return next season. “Qualifying for the Champions Hockey League was a goal of the management,” Bednar says. “It was one of their top objectives this season, we just had to turn up tonight.”
Slavia’s main strength is its offence. The most eye-catching player is 32-year-old Bednar, who had a brief NHL stint with the Los Angeles Kings and the Florida Panthers. He set a new personal point record this season, leading the league with 41 assists and 67 points.
Bednar also broke the record for the longest point streak in the Czech league. His name was on the score sheet 21 straight times, beating Vladimir Ruzicka’s record. Ruzicka witnessed his record being broken since he is the head coach of Slavia Prague.
But Bednar’s record-breaking season isn’t the sole reason for Slavia Prague’s success. He has found chemistry with 23-year-old Roman Cervenka. A product of Slavia’s youth department, Cervenka ranks second in goals and points in the league.
Whereas the spotlight is on the offensive duo, perhaps more credit should go to 32-year old David Hruska. The former Czech U20 player has emerged as a sniper. After consecutive 20+-goal season, Hruska hit 30 goals this season, leading the league in goals.
There are, however, still questions about Slavia’s goaltending. After starting goaltender Adam Svoboda left for the KHL, the team had to rely on the inexperienced duo of 18-year old Dominik Furch and a 34-year old, Stanislav Neruda.
Neruda had never thought he would play for Slavia when he learned of his call-up from the minor leagues. He was thrown to the lions immediately. And succeeded, posting seven consecutive wins including a pair of shutouts.
Furch was the Czech Republic’s starting goaltender at the World Junior Championship and won 11 of 16 games in the Extraliga this season. Despite the regular season success, it is unsure if the duo can carry Slavia deep into the playoffs.
Another reason for concern is Slavia’s streakiness. With the playoffs on the horizon, it is unknown if the hot or cold Slavia will show up. When things go well, the team can run rampant like they did thrashing Mountfield Ceske Budejovice 7-0 on the road. Only nine games later, Slavia found themselves on the wrong end of a 1-7 home loss to Bili Tygri Liberec.
One of Slavia’s biggest threats comes from rivals Sparta, which invested last summer with the hopes of making the CHL. Now the first opportunity to qualify for the CHL via the regular season title is gone, so now the Prague giants must qualify in the playoffs. Martin Rucinsky is sidelined with a shoulder injury but Sparta can still count on David Vyborny, Ondrej Kratena, Petr Ton and Michal Bros.
The team is coached by Frantisek Vyborny, who has an excellent playoff track record. He turned down the chance to coach Jaromir Jagr’s Avangard Omsk to return the Extraliga trophy to Sparta Prague. Vyborny’s men are fully focused and committed to return the title to the T-Mobile Arena.
The Czech Extraliga will finish its regular season on Thursday. After that the teams ranked 7-10 will play for the last two playoff tickets. The quarterfinals begin on March 2.