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Czech Extraliga roundup

by Bill Meltzer /
The Compuware NHL Premiere featuring the Boston Bruins and Phoenix Coyotes will be coming to Prague's O2 Arena in a little over a week. In the meantime, 10 of the 14 teams in the Czech Extraliga have played their first five games of the 2010-11 regular season. Defending champion HC Pardubice, as well as HC Slavia Prague, HC Karlovy Vary and HC Vitkovice have thus far played one fewer game than the other clubs.

Here's a look at the big stories and key early developments through the first two weeks of the Czech league season:

Life after Turek going well for Ceske Budejovice -- Over the summer, veteran goaltender Roman Turek announced his retirement at age 40. The longtime Extraliga and former netminder for the Dallas Stars, St. Louis Blues and Calgary Flames had spent the last five seasons with HC Ceske Budejovice (now known for sponsorship reasons as HC Mountfield). Despite his advancing age, Turek had been a workhorse in net for Ceske Budejovice, and was a key reason why the club was a solid contender his first three season, including a first-place regular season finish in 2007-08.

But Turek showed his age last season, and his save percentage dipped from .928 in his best season (2007-08) to .906 while his goals against average rose nearly three-quarters of a goal per game to 2.86 (his highest total at any level of hockey since he played in the defunct IHL for the Michigan K-Wings in 1996-97). Turek was far from the main culprit in a miserable 2009-10 season for Ceske Budejovice that saw the club tumble to ninth place, but the veteran decided the time had come to step aside.

In Turek's place stepped his backup, 22-year-old Jakub Kovar. Once a highly regarded import player in the Ontario Hockey League and a fourth-round draft pick of the Philadelphia Flyers in the 2006 Entry Draft, the youngster had been plagued by inconsistency at  the Canadian junior, World Junior Championship and Extraliga levels. Seeing limited duty behind Turek, Kovar often struggled to stay sharp and was loaned out on a couple occasions to minor-league teams in order to get much-needed work.

So far this season, Kovar has emerged as a more mature and much more confident goaltender. He has won four of his first five starts, most recently shutting out HC Kladno with 32 saves. Kovar has allowed just 10 goals and stopped 93.9 percent of the shots fired his way. That ranks third in the league behind HC Pardubice's Martin Ruzicka (1.26 GAA, .959 save percentage, 1 shutout) and HC Trinec's Tomas Duba (1.88 GAA, .944 save percentage). Ruzicka has even bigger skates to fill than Kovar, as he is replacing living legend Dominik Hasek, who came out of retirement again to lead his hometown team to the Czech championship.

In the meantime, Kovar's HC Ceske Budejovice club has roared out to the early lead in the Extraliga standings. Despite tallying just 14 goals so far (seventh most), the club's strong goaltending and improved defense have the club one point ahead of HC Trinec and two points in front of Bili Tygri (White Tigers) Liberec and BK Mlada Boleslav.

HC Plzen duo paces scoring charts -- After completing a successful 954-game NHL career that saw him compile a pair of 30-goal seasons and six seasons with 20-plus goals, Martin Straka has spent the last three seasons plying his trade in his hometown of Plzen. The 38-year-old center remains one of the premier offensive talents in the Czech league, averaging well over a point per game over the last two-plus seasons.

Straka has picked right up where he left off last season, when he tallied 17 goals and 43 points despite playing in only 36 of 52 games due to injury. Through the first five games of the 2010-11 campaign, the veteran has racked up 10 points (3 goals, 7 assists) to rank second on the league scoring charts.

The leader: Straka's HC Plzen linemate, Tomas Vlasak. The 35-year-old former Los Angeles Kings left wing, who has spent the last four seasons with HC Plzen, tops the Extraliga with 5 goals and 12 points. In the club's most recent game -- a 6-1 blowout of HC Litvinov -- Vlasak scored two goals and added two helpers, while Straka had a goal and an assist.

Rounding out the early-season top 10 in the scoring charts are HC Trinec forward Vojtech Polak (5 goals, 7 points), HC Karlovy Vary forward David Hruska (4 goals, 7 points), HC Kladno defenseman Milan Toman (1 goal, 7 points), HC Trinec center Martin Ruzicka (4 goals, 6 points), Bili Tygri Liberec forward Miloslav Horava (4 goals, 6 points), HC Brno left wing and former Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Marek Kvapil (1 goal, 6 points), HC Vitkovice forward Vladimir Svacina, and BK Mlada Boleslav and former Philadelphia Flyers center/left wing Tomas Divisek (3 goals, 5 points).

Krajicek signs with HC Trinec -- Unable to secure a one-way contract as an NHL free agent, defenseman Lukas Krajicek has elected to return home to the Czech Republic and sign a contract with HC Trinec. The 27-year-old Krajicek was considered something of an underachiever in North America, because he was a former first-round pick (No. 24 in 2001) and a standout OHL defenseman for the Peterborough Petes, but was an erratic performer at the NHL level. Nevertheless, Krajicek played parts of seven seasons with the Florida Panthers, Vancouver Canucks, Tampa Bay Lightning and Philadelphia Flyers.

Last season, after being given unconditional waivers by Tampa Bay and becoming an unrestricted free agent, Krajicek signed with Philadelphia. He went on to start 27 regular-season games and dressed in 22 of 23 playoff games for a Flyers team that reached the Stanley Cup Final. Despite being a regular starter in the playoffs, Krajicek was shaky at times in the postseason. Nevertheless, his signing is a major one for Trinec, as he has all the tools to dominate Extraliga.

Over the summer, there were rumors of teams in the KHL and Swiss National League courting Krajicek. Ultimately, he chose to return to play at home for the first time since he left the HC Zlin junior program at age 16 to come to North America. In five games played to date, Krajicek has scored 1 goal and 2 points. He tops the Trinec blue line in minutes played and has a plus-2 rating to date.

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