BRATISLAVA – There’s no better moment to say good bye than with a gold medal around your neck. After a three-year drought, Slovan Bratislava brought back the Slovak Extraliga trophy to the capital city of Slovakia defeating arch-rivals HC Kosice in seven games.
With both teams being extremely cautious in overtime, Libor Hudacek had other plans. The Slovan Bratislava forward decided not to play the safe pass back but instead blitzed past his opponent and cut inside from the left towards the net and rounded Kosice goaltender Alexander Hylak to earn Slovan the Extraliga title for the eighth time in history.
Slovan’s title came at a crucial moment. Having the best facilities and the largest budget in the league, the team has been held at bay and saw HC Kosice take over the reign with three consecutive championships.
With Slovan Bratislava said to have a spot in the KHL confirmed for next season, this was their last chance to make a point towards their main opponent. It didn’t go unnoticed.
For the first time in years the Extraliga had seen a more even playing field, but after 55 games four teams stood out. HC Kosice took the top seed followed by HK 36 Skalica, Slovan Bratislava and HK Poprad.
The post-season ended up less exciting than many hoped. Where Kosice and Slovan comfortably won their series in five games, Poprad failed to live up to their good season and lost to Dukla Trencin in the quarter-finals. Skalica, led by Zigmund Palffy, once again the league’s top scorer, were surprised by seventh seed HKM Zvolen meaning that the semi-finals match-ups were severely unbalanced.
Both Slovak hockey giants swept their opponents to go head-to-head in the Extraliga finals. With neither team able to open up a gap, the series swung back and forth requiring seven games.
Initially Kosice looked like bringing home the title for a fourth time after Richard Jencik had put the team into the lead, but midway the game Libor Hudacek scored his first important goal of the evening to make it 1-1. With both teams visibly nervous to make mistakes, the game was heading to overtime in which 21-year-old Hudacek made sure he would end up in Slovan’s history books.
“Already since I started playing hockey at the age of seven I have dreamed of scoring the decisive goal in the final game of the season,” Hudacek marveled. “The fans now see me as a hero, but the goal could have been scored by anyone. I feel honoured I was able to score the championship-winning goal.”
Not soon after the final series, Hudacek was handed his first Slovak national team call-up, which could not come at a better time with the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship coming up next week.
While Hudacek received most attention after the final game, his team mate Miroslav Satan has been a media magnet all season. In his first full season with Slovan, he immediately hit the jackpot. The playoff top scorer experienced the difficulties that playing for Slovan brings with it.
“Because of our name and image everyone always expects us to win and our opponents always try harder against us,” Satan realised since dressing up for Slovan. “I’m extremely pleased we didn’t let adversity get us down and only got better once the season progressed. HC Kosice was a very strong opponent with a lot of playoff final experience, but I’m glad for our fans that we saved our best for last.”
Next season new challenges will be available for Slovan Bratislava. Filling the Slovak void after Lev Poprad announced to relocate to Prague, the fresh Slovak champions will open up a new era in their rich history by joining the Russian KHL and leaving HC Kosice as the lone top favourite in Slovak league.
After having been dethroned, team president Vladimir Jacko announced changes will be eminent: “The past few, and even this season, we proved to be the best team in the league. Nevertheless we feel the squad has become saturated and it’s time to shake up the team and rejuvenate the squad. Next season we’ll have new players who are hungry to bring back to the title to Kosice.”
Jacko is not worried about the loss of Slovan being the deathblow to the league. “Only a few players of the current team will join them in the KHL. The others will be seeking new homes making the league stronger. Personally I think Slovan’s cross-border adventures won’t last longer than two or three years.”
Time will tell whether the HC Kosice president is correct with his prediction. Fact is that Slovan Bratislava will not be able to defend their title next season. While losing the title on home ice, Kosice now will also not have the opportunity to take revenge for it next season. When the Steel Arena was already empty, Slovan Bratislava waved goodbye on a high note.