No longer a league of their own

Trend reversal sees parity return in Slovak Extraliga

30.11.2011
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Slovan Bratislava sets new records in the Ondrej Nepala Arena that was rebuilt for the 2011 IIHF World Championship. Photo: Matthew Manor / HHOF-IIHF Images

For years the Slovak Extraliga has seen a pretty one-sided regular season in which either HC Kosice, Slovan Bratislava or both dominated the rest of the league.

In 2010 Slovan held a massive 21-point advantage on Banska Bystrica while Kosice smashed all league records last season with 134 points – 23 points ahead of Poprad. Currently things seem to have evened out and much can be contributed to the stellar play of veteran players and maturing young netminders.

Since 2005, six out of seven championships – three each – have been captured by either Slovan Bratislava or HC Kosice. Both teams are traditionally holding the largest budgets and were playing a catch-me-if-you-can game with the other Extraliga teams.

The pre-season was business as usual for Extraliga previews. At the start of the 2011-12 season both teams were once again considered major contenders.

However, although they are among the top teams in the league Kosice and Slovan have already accumulated 19 losses together after 26 games. A clear trend reversal from previous seasons.

Slovan is back among the top teams of the Extraliga after an off season last year in which they just barely made it above the 50% mark. One of the pillars underneath their success is the fact that they no longer have to play away from home after the reconstruction of the Ondrej Nepela Arena for the 2011 IIHF World Championship has been finalized last spring. With a capacity of close to 10,000, Slovan is now breaking league attendance records in their home games and have managed to win 8 out of 13 games so far.

Another reason behind Slovan’s success is the appointment of former Slovakia U20 coach Stefan Mikes and the return of veteran star players like Miroslav Satan and Roman Kukumberg.

At the age of 37, Satan is no longer in his prime, but during the most recent World Championships he showed that he can still hold his own. In the Extraliga he has a platform to display his skills and is averaging well over a point per game.

31-year-old centre Kukumberg has returned to Slovakia after failing to make a breakthrough in the KHL on four different teams in two years. He wasted no time making his return known and his 18 goals to date equal his personal record.

Not much has changed in Kosice during the off-season after three consecutive championships except of the coaching position. Successful coach Rostislav Cada left for the KHL’s Avangard Omsk and he was replaced by Czech Antonin Stavjana. Furthermore last season’s star goaltender Julius Hudacek signed in Sweden. But the sports cliché that tells never to change a winning team might start to backfire on HC Kosice. The roster has been ageing quickly and although it is still full of class, rejuvenation seems to be eminent rather sooner than later.

Kosice’s first line of Miroslav Zalesak, Peter Bartos and Peter Fabus is still producing but no longer at a point-per-game pace for each player. With their experience they will be ready when it really matters, but it seems like the regression has started. Between the pipes newly acquired goaltender Alexander Hylak has been doing well but is also a notch below the performance of Hudacek last season.

As a whole the team is not performing up to the level of last season, but thanks to a league-best away record they currently share the league’s lead with 51 points.

The three surprise packages completing the top-5 are co-leader HK 36 Skalica, HK Poprad and HKm Zvolen.

Skalica’s return to the top has one primary reason. 39-year-old Slovak phenomenon Zigmund Palffy returned in the green and white jersey. Although not having played competitively last season he immediately reclaimed a familiar spot for him: topping the scoring charts. With 14 goals and 44 points he is well ahead of the competition and his linemates fully profit from playing with the master himself. Centre Rene Skoliak has been playing in Slovakia his entire career but never made it to the international stage for his country. Nevertheless he has posted remarkable point totals in the past including a 70-point season in 2007 and a 50-point season last year. Skoliak however can also be streaky over long terms as his résumé shows. This season he seems to be hot again as his 27 assists are good for second in the league.

Veteran leadership also has HK Poprad riding high. The city not only has reasons to cheer because of Lev Poprad making its debut in the KHL, also the team playing in the Extraliga has worked itself up in the standings in recent weeks.

Currently riding a five-game winning streak the team fully benefits from the experience of Lubomir Vaic (aged 34), Martin Kulha (35) and Arne Krotak (39). The trio has accumulated for almost 50% of the goals scored this season.

Contrary to the other four top teams, an abundance of experience is no reason for HKm Zvolen’s success. The former Slovak giant has fallen off the radar in recent years and also struggled financially. It forced the management to turn back to their youth department and the team seems to reap the benefits of that this season.

The squad averages only 26 years and that’s mainly due to the presence of mid-30-year-olds Vadim Shakhraichuk, Kamil Brabenec and Rich Bronilla. As the only top-five team, Zvolen does not have a player in the top-ten scoring charts but has been getting production out of all four lines. On top of that they have conceded just 62 goals so far, which is third-best behind Slovan Bratislava and Dukla Trecin.

This is also thanks to strong goaltending. Former HC Kosice product Lukas Skrecko left for Zvolen after failing to work his way up behind a crowded Kosice roster and took over the starting role in Zvolen last year. This season the 24-year-old tops all goaltenders in the save percentage (92.9%) and is ranked fourth when it comes to goals against average.

In those charts Skrecko is accompanied by goaltenders he faced while growing up. Slovan Bratislava’s starting goaltender Branislav Konrad and Dukla Trencin’s Vladimir Kovac are also 1987-born while MHC Martin goes with 1988-born Marek Simko. Throughout the years all four goaltenders have been competing with each other for a spot on the various Slovak national junior teams and are now given room to showcase their skills on the ice instead of during practice sessions.

After sticking with veteran netminders for a long time, things have definitely changed in the Slovak Extraliga. Not just between the pipes but in general the parity in the league is slowly coming back. With the top-five ranked teams within three points of each other after 26 games, the 2011-12 season is one of the most exciting regular seasons in recent history.

Notebook:
  • Slovakia’s Extraliga new attendance record now stands at 8,982. It was achieved on November 18 during a clash between Slovan Bratislava and HC Kosice. The massive home crowd left the arena delighted after they saw their team defeat their arch-rivals 5-3.
  • Jozef Balej left Slovan Bratislava after the capital city team managed to sign up Miroslav Satan for the remainder of the season. With no more budget to keep the former Montreal Canadiens winger, Balej transferred to Kometa Brno of the Czech Extraliga.
  • Also HC Kosice waved goodbye to Peter Fabus and replaced him Gabriel Spillar, a veteran of 400 games in the Slovak Extraliga. He arrives in Kosice after having started the season in Kazakhstan with Torpedo Ust-Kamenogorsk.
  • Also this year the Slovak U20 national team is preparing for the IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship by participating in the Extraliga. After nine games they mustered one shoot-out win against HC 05 Banska Bystrica and lost the other eight matches. Promising, though, is the fact that they are no longer outscored as badly as in previous seasons. Five of their losses came with a margin of just two goals or less.
  • On November 29, Dukla Trencin and a team consisting of Slovak hockey stars met in honour of Pavol Demitra’s tragic death earlier this season. The specific date was selected as it would have marked Demitra’s 37th birthday. The Slovak hockey stars consisted out of a squad of all Extraliga players that donned the Slovak in the most recent Deutschland Cup alongside with former national team players Zigmund Palffy, Miroslav Satan, Radoslav Suchy and Branislav Janos.

JOERI LOONEN

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