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Extraliga: Veteran quartet sparks Steelers' fast start

by Bill Meltzer

After a highly disappointing 2011-12 campaign that saw the team fall precipitously from the summit of the Czech Extraliga, HC Ocelari Trinec (Trinec Steelers) has gotten off to a fast start in the early going of the current season. The team has won four of its first five games, scoring 16 goals to date while yielding only eight.


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Trinec dominated the league in 2010-11, finishing in first place during the regular season and then winning the first championship in team history. Last season, the club crashed back down to earth, falling to 10th place in the 14-team league. During the offseason, the team made numerous roster changes. Most notably, the club brought back forward Martin Ruzicka after a one-season stint in the KHL with Amur Khabarovsk.

Ruzicka was a crucial piece of the puzzle in the team's championship season, ranking fifth in the league in scoring during the regular season and then staging a playoff run for the ages. In 18 playoff games, Ruzicka compiled 17 goals, 16 assists and 33 points to shatter the league's single-season playoff scoring record. The previous mark was held by Zigmund Palffy, who posted 26 points (18 goals, 6 assists) for Dukla Trencin in the 1992 playoffs, prior to the split of the former Czechoslovakian league into separate circuits in the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Upon his return to the Steelers, Ruzicka has thus far picked up where he left off in the spring of 2011. To date, he has already lit the lamp six times and been credited with three assists in the first five games.

"Martin has shown that he's an elite shooter," head coach Joseph Turek told the team's official site after Ruzicka scored the game-winner in the team's 2-0 win over HC Pirati Chumotov (Chumotov Pirates). "He had a few chances, and he eventually decided the game."

There had been some concern that Ruzicka would be hampered physically after being slashed in his hand during a recent game. The player, who said he changed sticks between periods of the team's last game, has been no worse for the wear. Last Sunday, he scored the game-winner in the final minute of the team's 3-2 win over HC Vitokovice Steel.

"My hand doesn't limit me, and I can't use it to make excuses," Ruzicka said. "I went into the game knowing I couldn't even think about it. A couple of times, I felt twinges, but it was instinctual. I basically went in at 100 percent."

While Ruzicka's return has clearly provided Trinec with an offensive spark, the steadying presence of three other veteran leaders has also been crucial to the team's fast start.

Team captain Radek Bonk is now in his fourth season with Trinec after completing a 969-game NHL career in 2009. The 36-year-old, who has experienced his share of highs and lows during his long career, has earned recognition in recent years as one of the top locker room leaders in Czech hockey. Bonk had something of a down season last year, tallying 14 fewer points than during the championship season in two fewer games played.

Bonk has bounced back to form so far this season. He has tallied eight points (3 goals, 5 assists) in the first five games.

"Radek is our leader, and he helps our team to maintain its focus," Turek said. "He's been around long enough to know that we need to work to improve throughout the season."

The Trinec lineup also features another player with considerable past NHL experience: checking forward Vaclav Varada. The 36-year-old, who played nearly 500 NHL games, is in his third season with Trinec and fifth year back in the Extraliga since last playing in North America and Switzerland.

Now in his fourth season with HC Trinec after a 969-game NHL career, team captain Radek Bonk is regarded as one of the best leaders in the Czech Extraliga. (Photo: Getty Images)

As he did during his NHL days with the Buffalo Sabres and Ottawa Senators, Varada's main role is to agitate other team's top players, forecheck and play solid two-way hockey. Varada was limited by injury to just 16 games played last season, but is now healthy and has dressed in every game so far this season. He has registered a pair of assists.

The Steelers' veteran leadership group also includes 35-year-old defenseman Lukas Zib. A former Edmonton Oilers prospect, Zib has spent his entire career in Europe, with most of it being played for three teams (HC Ceske Budejovice, Bii Tygri Liberec, and Trinec) in the Czech Extraliga. An offensive-minded defenseman with good size, Zib has been one of the most consistent point-producing defensemen in the Extraliga for many years. He also has a bit of a mean streak on the ice.

Now in his fourth season with HC Trinec, Zib has compiled five points (two goals, three assists) in the first five games. Zib, who has not missed a single game since the 2007-08 season, is a virtually shoo-in to achieve his fourth straight season of 20-plus points during the 52-game regular season.

Most of the teams in the Czech Extraliga have signed NHL players during the current work stoppage. The Steelers have added Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Rostislav Klesla, who has suited up in each of the team's last three games. The club was said to have an agreement with Winnipeg Jets goaltender Ondrej Pavelec, but the deal could not be consummated and Pavelec signed with Liberec instead.

Trinec returns to action on Thursday. The club will pay a visit to Prague to take on Sparta. To date, Sparta has struggled out of the starting gate, with just one regulation win and one overtime win to show for its first five games.

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