While the NHL readies itself for the stretch run of the regular season, the playoffs are already under way in the Czech Republic’s Extraliga. At the conclusion of the 52-game regular season, HC Mountfield Ceske Budejovice breezed to first place in the 14-team circuit. Ceske Budejovice’s 106 points outdistanced second-place HC Slavia Prague by a comfortable eight-point margin.
Originally founded in 1928, the HC Ceske Budejovice club is a mainstay in the top Czech league. Entering this season, however, the team has won just one Czech/Czechoslovakian championship in its 80-year history. This year’s entry has as good a chance as any in recent memory to end a championship drought that stretches to the 1950-51 season. The current season has marked the club’s best season since 1995-96 and its only first-place finish in the last 20 years.
Under the Extraliga’s current playoff format, the top-six regular-season teams automatically qualify for the playoffs, while the seventh-place squad (HC Trinec) plays the 10th-ranked team (HC Orli) and the eighth (HC Kladno) and ninth (HC Plzen) seeds face off in a best-of-five playoff qualification series. HC Ceske Budejovice will take on the winner of the Trinec-Orli series. Trinec currently leads the series, 2-0.
The secret to Ceske Budejovice’s success this season has been the team’s stifling defense. The club allowed just 2.13 goals-against per game (111 goals in 52 games) this season; nine goals fewer than the next-stingiest Extraliga squad, the Liberec White Tigers. Annual improvements in the team’s talent and depth on defense has been one major reason why Ceske Budejovice has steadily advanced from last place and relegation during the 2003-04 campaign to eighth place in the Extraliga in 2005-06 to its first place this year.
Veteran national team goaltender Roman Turek has received much of the credit for the team’s success. The 37-year-old former Dallas Stars, St. Louis Blues and Calgary Flames goalie ranked among the Extraliga leaders in most major goaltending categories this season. Turek led the circuit with six shutouts, was first in GAA (2.14) and fifth in both minutes played (2,494) and save percentage (.928).
The play of in front of Turek has also been stellar. In particular, the defensive combination of Filip Novak and Milan Toman has played a major role in HC Mountfield’s dominance this season.
The diminutive Toman, 28, posted seven goals and 24 points (tied for the league lead among defensemen) while posting a stellar plus-25 defensive rating at even strength (second best in the league to Slavia Prague defender Tomas Zizka). Meanwhile, 25-year-old former Ottawa Senators and Columbus Blue Jackets blueliner Novak had a plus-20 rating and four points, despite missing seven games.
Offensively, Ceske Budejovice ranked third in the Extraliga this season with 166 goals scored. Overall, HC Slavia Prague paced the league with 181 goals scored, led by former NHLer Jaroslav Bednar (25 goals) and veteran David Hruska (22 goals). Balance was the name of the game for Ceske Budejovice, as the club didn’t have a player who ranked among the top 14 point-getters in the circuit, but had seven players produce double-digit goals and 14 different players reach double-digit points in a league that does not award secondary assists.
Former Carolina Hurricanes left winger Tomas Kurka led Ceske Budejovice with 34 points (19 goals, 15 assists), good for 15th in the league. Teammate Viktor Hubl led the squad with 20 goals and ranked 16th in the Extraliga with 33 points. Toman’s 17 assists were tops on the team. Also providing regular offense were nine-year veteran Jiri Simanek (18 goals) and 32-year-old mainstay Petr Sailer (13 goals).
Ceske Budejovice received exceptionally strong offensive contributions from its mobile corps of defensemen this season, getting 20 goals from the backline. Beyond Toman’s seven goals, Ceske Budejovice got six goals from veteran Petr Gregorek and four from former Vancouver Canucks farmhand Rene Vydareny.
If HC Mountfield is to break its 57-year championship drought this year, it will have to buck some unfavorable trends for the top seeds in the Czech playoffs. It’s been six years since the last time a Czech team finished first in the Extraliga regular season and went on to win the championship.
Eight-time Czech champions HC Sparta Prague was the last team to win both the regular season and playoffs when they accomplished the feat in 2001-02. Sparta has won the last two Czech championships despite entering the postseason as the fourth seed last year and the sixth seed in 2005-06. Sparta will look for the championship hat trick as a six-seed this season, after finishing 27 points behind Ceske Budejovice in the regular season.
Sparta’s longtime archrival, Slavia, enters the playoffs as the second seed. Meanwhile, the third-ranked Bili Tygri Liberec may be relieved to escape the pressure of being the number one ranked playoff team, after finishing first in each of the two previous regular seasons only to come up short in the postseason.