KOSICE, Slovakia – Their fans had to wait for a decade, but their patience has finally been rewarded. Ever since HC Kosice regained Slovak supremacy by becoming the 2009 champion, the team has been dominant in the city where the 2011 IIHF World Championship will begin in 63 days.
The “Steelers” from Kosice defended the title last season by defeating arch-rival Slovan Bratislava in six games. And they look well on their way to make it three in a row.
This season HC Kosice broke a new national record for most points in regular season. The team amassed 137 points in 57 games this season, topping their own record from 2008 by eleven points. Furthermore, they broke the 200-goal plateau, averaging well over three goals per game this season.
Already before the first game it was clear that the reigning champion would be a prime candidate for the title bid, but no one foresaw that their dominance would be so huge.
In previous seasons Kosice faced tough opposition from former NHL star Ziggy Palffy and his team HK 36 Skalica or the other big Slovak team, Slovan Bratislava, but there hasn’t been such challenge this time. With Palffy gone, HK 36 Skalica became a mediocre team sitting in seventh place.
Slovan Bratislava experienced one of its worst regular seasons in recent history that saw them swallow no less than 27 losses. Normally paired together on the top of the Extraliga standings, the gap between Slovan and Kosice grew immense, to 47 points.
The lone team to be somewhat following Kosice was HK SKP Poprad, who also surpassed the 100-point mark, but still was 26 points behind.
“To set a new league record is nice, but the most important thing is that we meet our team objectives,” says top goal scorer Michel Miklik. “While our regular season has been excellent, we should ensure to maintain our form during the playoffs.”
Easier said than done perhaps, but HC Kosice can rely on playoff run experience both on and off the ice.
Much like the previous seasons the heart and soul of the team is personalized in forward Peter Bartos. The 38-year-old is playing his seventh consecutive season with Kosice and remains a-point-per-game player. For coach Rostislav Cada, Bartos provides the perfect bridge to bring across the coach’s message to the team.
Despite the near stellar season the team can use Cada’s guidance. Due to an ageing squad, Kosice was forced to rebuild while staying competitive. This has been managed to perfection. Still the roster contains some of the top domestic players available in the league like recently acquired Miroslav Zalesak, or defencemen Jan Tabacek and Jan Homer. On the other end the team has been revitalised by a youth injection. Currently eight players are below 25 years of age including both netminders.
Whereas Slovak goaltending has been questioned in the past, both Kosice goaltenders are surely making noise across the country’s border. 22-year-old Julius Hudacek is getting the lion’s share of starts. The two-time Extraliga All-Star goaltender has wowed the fans with a save percentage of nearly 94% and six shutouts this season.
In case Hudacek would lose his focus, Rostislav Cada can safely put in 1990-born Tomas Halasz. After getting used to the pro game in the second league, Halasz has been nothing else than spectacular in the 13 opportunities he’s been given this season posting a GAA of 1.48 and four shutouts.
In front of the net young Radek Deyl is making tremendous progress. Just out of his teenage years, he’s already a solid part of Kosice’s defence. He was also rewarded with a call-up by Glen Hanlon for the Slovak national team during the international break with the Slovakia Cup in Bratislava.
“It’s a great experience to be on the national team,” the young defenceman said. “Suddenly I find myself in a locker room together with players like Pavol Demitra or Jozef Stümpel from whom I can learn a lot.”
The atmosphere in the arena was also much liked.
“When the stands will be packed with Slovaks during the World Championship in May, it will be a great atmosphere for sure.”
But until the first puck drops in that tournament, HC Kosice will have to ensure they will not become their own enemy. Too often teams that have outclassed the league during the regular season fall asleep during the post-season.
Peter Bartos has seen it all and will be on guard to wake up his team mates if necessary.
“The playoffs will be a new competition in which all the results and possible problems of the regular season are forgotten,” Bartos said. “Therefore we may not underestimate any team let alone rule out our rival Slovan Bratislava.”
The quarterfinals began with two games on Thursday. Kosice edged Nitra 4-3 thanks to Jaroslav Kristek’s game-winning goal with one minute left in regulation time, while Skalica surprised in Poprad with a 2-0 victory.
The other quarterfinal pairings: Banska Bystrica vs. Zvolen, Slovan Bratislava vs. Dukla Trencin.Notebook:
- In order to improve in the post-season, Slovan Bratislava was quite active on the transfer market before the deadline. The struggling team saw Lubomir Vaic leave for Sweden, but reacted by acquiring veteran Marek Uram from league rival MHC Martin. Furthermore they signed Canadian defenceman Joe Rullier (Bakersfield, ECHL), who will join fellow countryman Richard Jackman.
- Peter Bartos was awarded the Kosice Sports Personality of the Year Award at the hands of former Czechoslovak hockey legend Jiri Holecek. “Initially I only signed here for two years, but gradually I realized I wanted to stay in Kosice and hope my contributions to this team will not end soon,” Bartos stated.
- The Slovak U20 national team that participates in the Slovak Extraliga bounced back nicely after the World U20 Championship. After not being able to register a win in 20 games before the tournament, they posted two victories since coming back from Buffalo. The most notable upset was a 5-3 win against Slovan Bratislava on February 2.
- Second ranked HK SKP Poprad bolstered its squad with two North American players: Kyle Wanvig (Augsburg, GER) and Brandon Rogers (Lake Erie, AHL). With the acquisitions they follow a trend that could already be witnessed in neighbouring Czech Republic and will bring a more international flavour to the Slovak Extraliga.