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Czech champs gear up to defend crown

by Bill Meltzer
Established in 1900, Slavia Prague has had a tortured history that lasted until the new millennium. The team won its first Czech championship in 2003 and has been a contender since.

Last season, the common wisdom was that the season would be transitional campaign for Slavia. Instead, the team won the Extraliga championship under the coaching guidance of former Boston Bruins star Vladimir "Rosey" Ruzicka. The team capped its playoff run with a seven-game victory over HC Karlovy Vary in the finals.

This season, the expectations have naturally been much higher. And, the club hasn't disappointed. Through the first 47 games of the 2008-09 season, Slavia sits in first place. There are five games remaining in the regular season.

With 85 points, Slavia holds a narrow two-point advantage over HC Pardubice. HC Litvinov is in third place, trailing by six points, while Slavia's archrival Sparta Prague has 75 points. Meanwhile, HC Ceske Budejovice (last year's top regular-season club) has tumbled to No.11 place in the 14-team league. 

Last season, Slavia was especially dominant at its home O2 Arena.  The club won 19 of 26 games and scored 108 goals (4.15 goals per game) while allowing just 56 goals (2.12 per game). This year, the team has continued to send the crowds home happy, winning 17 of 23 home games.

For the second-straight year, Slavia has the highest-powered offense in the Czech league,
scoring 160 times. In fact, Slavia boasts the Extraliga's top two scorers.

Few opponents have been able to stop former Florida Panthers right wing Jaroslav Bednar. A year ago, he led the club in scoring with 25 goals and 46 points, good for ninth overall in the Extraliga. This time around, he leads the league with 61 points (23 goals, 38 assists) despite missing six games due to injury.

Bednar's linemate, 23-year-old Roman Cervenka, is second on the league scoring chart, with 25 goals and 50 points. Meanwhile one-time Ottawa Senators draftee David Hruska has been the top sniper in the league, scoring 27 goals.

One player whose contributions often show up more in the win column than the stat sheet is veteran Josef Beranek.

Back in 2002, Slavia recruited the longtime NHLer after the forward had just returned home after a 531-game NHL career, which saw stops in Edmonton, Philadelphia, Vancouver and Pittsburgh. For the past eight seasons, Beranek, Slavia's captain, has been a mainstay and a crucial presence in the lockerroom.

Beranek won a league scoring title in 2003-04 and was integral on and off the ice in the team's Extraliga championships of 2002-03 and 2007-08. Although he scored just one goal in 12 playoff games last year, he inspired his teammates by playing through torn knee ligaments.

This time around, the 39-year-old has scored 13 goals and 38 points.

As the playoffs approach, starting goaltender Adam Svoboda will need to be a workhorse for a club that allows its fair share of scoring chances. Last year, he led the league in minutes played and fashioned six shutouts. This year he has played 1,531 minutes with a .921 save percentage.

By virtue of its Extraliga championship last year, Slavia earned an automatic berth in the new Champions Hockey League, where it competed against the defending champions from around Europe. Slavia won three of its four games, but missed out on a berth in the semifinals after losing 5-1 to the eventual champion ZSC Lions of Switzerland's Nationalliga A.

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