The 2008-09 season was a magical one for HC Karlovy Vary. But now, the magic seems to have worn off.
Founded in 1932, HC Karlovy Vary typically has been an also-ran in Czech hockey. However last season, for the first time, the club and its fans celebrated a Czech Extraliga championship. The team, which finished sixth during the regular season last season, capped an extraordinary playoff run by defeating defending champion HC Slavia Prague in six games.
In order to have a chance at repeating the feat this season, Karlovy Vary will need to elevate its play down the stretch. With 44 games played in the Extraliga regular season, Karlovy Vary is in eighth place in the 14-team league. There are eight games left in the regular season, and the final two playoff spots still are very much up for grabs among six teams.
Karlovy Vary is one of four teams with 60 points, along with seventh-ranked Slavia, HC Ceske Budejovice and HC Litvinov. If the season ended today, the latter two clubs would miss the playoffs. BK Boleslav and Bili Tygri (White Tigers) Liberec have 58 points. Meanwhile, sixth-place HC Sparta Prague has a 10-point lead on the rest of the pack, and first-place HC Plzen has 88 points.
Inconsistent goal scoring has been Karlovy Vary's biggest problem this season. With 117 goals scored, the club ranks 10th in the league offensively; last season the club was sixth in goals with 150. There is not a single Karlovy Vary player among the league's top 25 scorers this season. The team's leading scorer is forward Petr Kumstat (13 goals, 31 points), who ranks 28th in the league.
A year ago, Kumstat also led the team offensively, as his 18 goals and 45 points were good for 10th in the league. Pugnacious Vaclav Skuhravy also has seen his offensive production slip. After compiling 18 goals and 39 points to go along with 92 penalty minutes last season, Skuhravy has lit the lamp just six times this season. He has 12 fewer points overall and has racked up 126 penalty minutes. Likewise, Jaroslav Kristek
has dropped from 15 goals to eight. Now in 12th season with Karlovy Vary, forward Jan Kostal has 15 goals but just 5 assists; last season, Kostal ranked fourth on the club with 12 goals and 24 points.
The club also has struggled on home ice, scoring just 2.69 goals per game (62 goals in 23 matches) while earning a modest 31 points. The club's home record ranks next-to-last in the league.
Defensively, Karlovy Vary has been decent this season, ranking seventh in the league with 125 goals allowed. The goaltending chores have been split fairly evenly between Lukas Mensator
(1,601 minutes played) and Lukas Sablik (1,072 minutes). Sablik has posted a 2.69 goals against average and .912 save percentage to Mensator's 2.85 GAA and .909 save percentage.
Until the early 1990s, HC Karlovy Vary barely caused a ripple -- much less made waves -- on the Czech hockey scene. In the early 1990s, the current management group bought the club and it gained sponsorships to make it more financially stable. By 1997, the club earned a promotion from the minor leagues to the Extraliga.
Even then, Karlovy Vary was not a championship contender. The club finished out of the playoffs for the better part of a decade, finally reaching the postseason in the 2005-06 season. In 2007-08 the club finished second during the regular season and reached the finals before falling to Slavia in a rollercoaster of a seven-game series. Last season, Karlovy Vary returned the favor. On Easter Sunday 2009, people clad in the team's green and black colors danced in the Karlovy Vary streets. Barring a sudden surge, there probably won't be much celebrating this spring.