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Goaltender Kovar matures into iron man

by Bill Meltzer
With three games left in the 52-game Czech Extraliga regular season, HC Mountfield Ceske Budejovice goaltender Jakub Kovar is attempting to accomplish a rare feat.
Barring a late-season injury, the 22-year-old netminder will start every game of the season for his team. The last Extraliga goalie to even play 50 games in a season was HC Orli netminder Jiri Trvaj, who did it 2008-09. Trvaj started all 52 games in 2002-03 when he was playing for HC Vitkovice.
Through his first 49 games of the season, Kovar (pronounced Koh-vash) has logged 2,905 minutes of playing time and played all but 22 minutes of the maximum possible time. Kovar has been pulled from games twice this season, once in favor of Jaroslav Jagr and another time for 19-year-old rookie Simon Hrubek. He ranks fourth in the league with a 2.46 goals-against average and .925 save percentage and has posted four shutouts to tie for second in the league.
"To be honest, there were a few games where I felt a little tired physically, but I worked through it," Kovar told his team's website. "As a goaltender, you need a lot of work to stay sharp, and right now I feel like I'm completely alert and ready."
This is all new territory for Kovar. Until the current season, he had been stuck behind former NHL and Czech national team goaltender Roman Turek on the team's depth charts. Turek retired last spring at age 40, opening the door for Kovar.
Kovar's emergence this season has reversed what had been an underachieving young career. Once a highly regarded prospect who was taken by the Philadelphia Flyers in the fourth round (No. 109) at the 2006 Entry Draft, Kovar had been plagued by inconsistency.
While the 6-foot-1, 195-pound netminder long has been praised for his lateral mobility and strong reflexes, he had a tendency to play too far back in his net (even when playing on the larger international surface where goalies are trained to stand further back in the crease), and to lose focus after making a mistake. During a one-season stint in the Ontario Hockey League, Kovar had only middling success with the talent-laden Oshawa Generals (which included current NHL players John Tavares and Michael Del Zotto) or Windsor Spitfires.
At the 2008 World Junior Championships, Kovar struggled in two starts and gave way to current Washington Capitals goaltender Michal Neuvirth as a starter. Coincidentally, a few weeks after the tournament, Kovar was traded by Oshawa to Windsor in exchange for Neuvirth.
"It was funny to be traded for Michal," Kovar told the Flyers' website. "We are very good friends for a long time. He is my friend back in Czech Republic, for many years. It was a new experience for me, because I was never traded before. This was something new."
When his junior career concluded, Kovar did not receive much interest from Philadelphia or any other NHL club. As a result, he decided to return home to the Czech Republic and sign with Ceske Budejovice, with whom the Pisek native had broken in through the junior system prior to opting for the OHL. Although he rarely got to play, Kovar learned a lot from studying Turek.
"Roman was always a goalie I admired for his success, and he passed some things along to me," Kovar said. "I have always liked to watch what the best goalies do. At the same time, I didn't really try to copy Roman or any other goaltender."
Seeing limited duty behind Turek over the course of two seasons, Kovar often struggled to stay sharp during his stretches of inactivity. In order to get Kovar some much-needed game action, HC Mountfield loaned Kovar to minor-league teams SK Slavia Tribec and HC Tabor. With HC Tabor last season, Kovar posted a 2.53 GAA and .920 save percentage in 13 starts. He also started five playoff games.
Meanwhile, Turek realized the time had finally come to step aside. He did not play well last season, and while he was far from the main culprit in a miserable 2009-10 campaign for Ceske Budejovice, which saw the club tumble to ninth place, Turek said he no longer was able to play at the level he was accustomed to. Kovar never has looked back since assuming the starting job.
He started 2010-11 by winning four of his first five starts, including a 32-save shutout of Kladno en route to posting a 2.00 GAA and .939 save percentage through the first month of the season. Although he has not quite been able to maintain the same torrid pace through the next 4 1/2 months, Kovar has been one of the league's most consistent goalies while racking up massive minutes in goal.
"I think it's a good challenge but I can't worry about it," he said of playing every game. "It's the coach's decision but it gives you a lot of confidence to know that even if you have a bad game or two, you will be back out there. Right now the goal is to get the best possible playoff matchup."
With the season winding down to its final few games, Kovar's HC Mountfield club ranks sixth in the 14-team league. The club is tied with defending champion HC Pardubice with 80 points and 22 regulation wins, but ahead in the standings based on superior goal differential. Slavia Prague is one point ahead of Ceske Budejovice. If the season ended today, HC Mountfield would play third-place PSG Zlin in the first round of the playoffs. If Pardubice overtakes HC Mountfield, the Ceske Budejovice would draw the second-place White Tigers (Bili Tygri) of Liberec.
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