“It’s like a fairy tale,” a delirious Kacetl said to the live television cameras after the game. “After all the work we put in and everything we’ve been through, now the title. I don’t have any words.”
This series started in Trinec with the home team grabbing the lead with 6-2 and 3-1 wins. Liberec got back in the series with a 3-0 win on their home ice thanks to two assists from playoff scoring leader Michal Birner and 25 saves by Petr Kvaca.
Liberec was now in a position to tie the series, making Game four a crucial one. Liberec outshot Trinec 19-18 through 60 minutes but Kvaca and Kacetl stopped everything. Overtime was dominated by Trinec, however, and 9:14 of the extra frame, Matej Stransky deflected Ralfs Freibergs’ point shot past Kvaca to put them on the brink of victory.
“Overtime decided the fifth game and really the series,” Liberec head coach Patrik Augusta agreed. “Other than the first game, which we didn’t play well, I think the whole series was pretty even. But in the end, they were able to score when it mattered and we weren’t. We lost some players, which of course is not an excuse, it just happens. But I'm proud of the whole team. Congratulations to Trinec. They played very well, especially on defence, which made it very difficult to generate anything against them.”
After finishing fourth in the regular season, Liberec made the finals by defeating first-place Sparta Prague in a wild semi-final series. The “White Tigers” won the first three games before Sparta roared back with three straight wins – the latter two in overtime – to force a seventh and decisive game at Prague’s O2 Arena. There, Liberec pulled off a nail-biting 2-1 victory to advance.
For Trinec, there were a lot of great moments on the ice but it was also a season in which the team saw plenty of adversity, and not just because of the pandemic.
Trinec opened the season like a house on fire, winning 14 of its first 15 games – 13 of them in regulation time – despite a two-month layoff between their second and third games due to a team-specific quarantine followed by a national shutdown of team sports. After hitting a skid in December and January where they went 10 games without a regulation win, the Steelers got back on track and looked like they would finish first before a family tragedy that struck captain Petr Vrana late in the season caused the postponement of a scheduled home game against Litvinov and saw the team drop four of its last five regular-season games and finish second with 106 points, two back of Sparta.
But few in Trinec – a town of less than 40,000 where the bond between the team and fans is high – cared about the loss of first place as much as they worried about Vrana. But being the leader he is, Vrana rose to the occasion.
“If he came and brought everybody down and couldn’t get himself into the game, it might have been counterproductive,” Varada said of Vrana staying around the team. “But he played great, helped our players and pulled them. Especially the first line. He pulled unbelievably and gave the others confidence.”
Vrana centred the top line with Stransky and Martin Ruzicka on his wings. Ruzicka, the team’s offensive leader, has played a key role in all three of the club’s titles. A decade ago as a 25-year-old, he scored 17 goals in 18 games to set an Extraliga playoff record that still stands. In 2021, the 35-year-old Ruzicka recorded 63 regular-season points – his highest total in five years – and 15 points in 16 playoff games.
The only other player who has been a member of all three titles is Erik Hrna, who was a 21-year-old rookie back in 2011. This year he matched his career high with 31 points. In goal, veteran Jakub Stepanek was the starter for most of the season but Kacetl was given the start in the first playoff game, shut out Kometa Brno 5-0 and never looked back.
“We got players here who pull together as one,” said Varada. “They have really very good character. I believe that I showed the boys the way to constantly improve, and how to want to constantly win and do the maximum for it. Even if something went wrong, the boys moved on and were able to find the strength to return to the winning path that helped us this season.”
In the playoffs, Trinec swept Kometa four straight in the quarter-finals, beat BK Mlada Boleslav 4-2 in the semis before meeting Liberec in the final.
“Definitely the semi-final series with Mlada Boleslav,” was the most difficult one, according to Varada. “We had to adjust our strategy from the regular season, when we tried to be very active and it cost us. We bet on honest defence; we were annoying. I think that series took a lot of our energy. Kometa in the first one may have been tired after a difficult series with Vitkovice. For each opponent, we came up with what works. The players bought into it. We were the better team in most games.”
Trinec’s 3-0 victory over Liberec was the last Extraliga game of the season but one spot among next season’s teams is still to be decided.
Next season, the Extraliga will temporarily expand by one team. The 14 teams that competed this season will be joined by the winner of the Chance Liga finals, in which Dukla Jihlava currently leads Rytiri Kladno 3-2 in games. As a result of the problems caused by the pandemic, it was decided that no team would be relegated this season. However, at the end of the 2021/22 season, two teams will be relegated and the Extraliga will return to 14 teams for 2022/23.