Getting to the top is easier than remaining there. It’s a well-known cliché in sports, but proves often to be so correct. The 2009-10 Czech Extraliga season has learned that building a league dynasty is a thing of the past. Instead the league has been full of surprises and suffering from a bad spell: Teams that touch silverware will fall to failure not long after.
Considered a grand feat initially, things turned ugly for both the reigning champion as well as the regular season winner this year.
The city of Karlovy Vary enjoyed a green-black summer. After losing the Extraliga final the year before, the local hockey team captured its first-ever title in history by defeating Slavia Prague in six games last season. Thousands of people occupied the streets wearing the green and black jerseys and the festivities held on long into the summer.
What a difference a year makes.
Barely recovered from their joy, the Energie Karlovy Vary fans saw the reigning champions struggle heavily. Even a mid-season coaching change did not improve things and the golden team of 2009 ended up empty-handed. With just ten victories in 26 games in their own arena, Energie Karlovy Vary posted the league’s worst home ice record. Direct result from this was that their eleventh place in the 14-team Extraliga meant they did not only miss out the chance to defend their title, but they also got their spot for the agonizing mini-league that would decide on relegation to the second-tier league.
The team entered the relegation round with an eight-point lead over bottom-ranked HC Kladno, taken over from the regular season. But as quickly the early spring sun beams appeared, the point advantage vanished like the snow on the countryside. Karlovy Vary lost its first six games and faced relegation straight into the eyes.
A win in regular time along with a pair of narrow overtime wins in their last three games gave Karlovy Vary some breathing room. They currently hold a six point lead over BK Mlada Boleslav, a thin margin but with three games remaining in the round robin it seems like being just enough to avoid the drop.
With the reigning champions outside the playoff the main question was which team would fill the void. Right from the start of the Extraliga, three teams ran away from the rest of the pack and challenged each other for the top spot. After 52 games Plzen had opened up a ten point gap over followers Zlin and Pardubice to claim the regular-season title as well as possessing the best home and away record of the league.
The team captained by former NHLer Martin Straka, who also functions as General Manager, started the playoffs convincingly. Two wins (4-0 and 4-1) in their first two home games against eight-seeded Bili Tygri Liberec had the team on course of a golden path. Petr Nedved’s Liberec proved tough customers though. Two games in Liberec later the series was tied at two and the race for the semi-final spot fully open.
Whereas the odds where on Plzen advancing based on home ice advantage, Liberec thought differently. They captured a 2-0 and 3-1 lead thanks to a pair of goals by Tomas Klimenta and managed to hold on to win 3-2 and take the upper hand in the series.
Liberec had qualified for the quarterfinals after a thrilling five-game playoff qualifier against Ceske Budejovice. With a ticket to the next round up for grabs, Liberec played its best game of the series thrashing their opponents 9-1. It was history repeating in game six against HC Plzen. Again having the opportunity to deliver the knock-out punch, they outplayed their opponents immensely. After an even first 20 minutes in which both teams found the net once, Liberec opened up a 3-1 gap in the second period. The regular season champions were facing early elimination and cut the lead back to one thanks to a quick Petr Vampola goal. But it was all Liberec after that. Four goals by four different players saw Plzen leave the ice in embarrassment and a 3-7 defeat.
“They played the series with more heart and therefore deserved it more,” captain Martin Straka said after the game. He also criticized his own performance in the playoffs and admitted it was far below par. With the elimination, a season that looked so successful abruptly came to and end. Straka doesn’t want to announce any consequences yet. “We will evaluate the season in a few days when the emotion has made room for common sense,” he said.
Liberec will play HC Pardubice in the semi final. Third-seeded HC Pardubice last won the Czech Extraliga back in 2005 and is destined to end the drought. They powered past Ocelari Trinec in five games and have Dominik Hasek back between the pipes after injury. The veteran goalie returned to the game in his hometown this season and has been sensational at times. He started his career with Pardubice back in 1981 and captured two titles with that team in 1987 and 1989. Another championship with his beloved team would close the circle of the remarkable career of one of the best goalies the world has ever seen.
The road is open for Hasek and his team. Like top seeded Plzen, second-ranked HC Zlin flopped in their quarterfinal series against Slavia Prague. Despite two big home wins (6-1 and 8-3), Zlin lost the series in six games and can start thinking of next season.
For Slavia Prague the playoffs are nothing new. This year marks the tenth straight season in which they made the post-season. In five of the last seven playoffs they also managed to reach the final. Whether yet another chance to play for the trophy is coming remains to be seen. Slavia comes off a poor regular season in which they won just half of their games. Their home form could very well be the deciding factor in determining their success. Despite three wins in the O2-Arena in the playoffs, Slavia boasted one the poorest records on home ice during the regular season. It was therefore not a surprise to see very few people show up for the playoff games. With a capacity of 18,000, Slavia’s home arena could be a real boost for the home team when sold out, but the attendance during the quarterfinals averaged shy off the 7,000 mark.
Slavia’s opponent will come from the winner of the seventh game between Vitkovice Ostrava and Sparta Prague. The series is going back and forth and tied at three with Vitkovice having the opportunity to see off the city capital giants on home ice in game seven. Regardless of the outcome, the series will be overshadowed by the events in game four. The game lasted less than five minutes. First off there was collision between Lukas Krenzelok and Jakub Koreis. Sparta forward Koreis couldn’t avoid head first contact into the boards and crippled on the ice before the team doctor could rush onto the ice. The forward suffered a badly bruised chest and a bruised lung meaning he will be sidelined for quite some time, but this wasn’t the worst news that evening. Moments later a Vitkovice fan collapsed in the stands. Paramedics with a defibrillator were immediately available, but despite their efforts they could not rescue the man who lost life. The game was postponed and finished the next day.
A potential semi-final series against Slavia would provide Vitkovice with a chance to make up for last season. Having taken a 3-1 lead in the series they saw Slavia Prague rally back and eventually lose the series in seven games. The game would also mean a special game behind the benches. Slavia coach Vladimir Ruzicka replaced Vitkovice’s Alois Hadamczik as national team coach. Since that, the latter has repeatedly criticized Ruzicka’s tactics and selections much to the frustration of the Czech Olympic coach.
If Sparta manages to qualify for the semi-final, the Extraliga can prepare for a heated match-up between both Prague rivals. The last time both teams met in the playoffs was in 2006. Sparta defeated Slavia in six games in the playoff final. The last mutual semi-final match-ups between both teams dates back 2004. In that encounter Slavia won a nerve-wrecking series in seven games before falling to Zlin in the final.
For the fourth straight season the reigning champion fails to defend the Extraliga title. The same can be said about the regular season winner’s success in the post-season. Only once in the past six seasons the top-seeded team could translate their success into the playoffs. Winning silverware isn’t a good omen in the Czech Republic, let it serve as a warning to the remaining teams. They will need to perform some magic to break the spell that seems to have possessed the Czech titles in reasons years.Extraliga notebook:
- The name of Jan Kolar wouldn’t immediately ring a bell with most hockey fans. The 29-year-old Pardubice forward, however, is turning out to be a real late bloomer. He exploded with 43 points last season and had 20 in 36 games this season. In the playoffs he leads his team with seven points in five games and is knocking on the door of the national team.
- Roman Cervenka is already being an established national team member. The Slavia Prague forward is rumoured to play his last games in the Czech Extraliga as he is said to be offered several lucrative contracts from abroad. With 17 points in 11 games, he continues to show he has outgrown the domestic league. Cervenka also won the regular season scoring title with 73 points, 18 more than second-ranked Petr Ton.
- The Vitkovice Ostrava – Sparta Prague series turned out to be the contest between the two hottest goalies in the Czech playoffs. Vitkovice’s Jakub Stepanek has been sensational posting a save percentage of almost 96%. His counterpart of Sparta Prague, Petr Prikryl, ranks second with 93%.
- Newcomers Kometa Brno managed to avoid relegation after having trailed all teams for most of the seasons. A strong last few months saw the team gain enough points to secure an Extraliga spot next season.
- The Czech national team staff is anxiously awaiting responses from forwards Jaromir Jagr and Petr Cajanek about their availability for the upcoming World Championship. Both players have yet to determine whether they want to represent their country after a long season in Russia.