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Puigcerda plays to perfection in Spain

by Bill Meltzer / NHL.com

Spain's CG Puigcerda had as good a season a team can have by repeating as champions with an undefeated season in Liga Nacional de Hockey Hielo (LNHH).
Most every hockey player, coach and fan has fantasized at one time or another about a perfect season. This year, CG Puigcerda of Spain's Liga Nacional de Hockey Hielo (LNHH) did just that, winning all of the major domestic competitions. Coach Peter Oppitz's team plowed through the regular season, successfully defended its crown at the annual Copa del Rey tournament and topped it off by winning its third straight Spanish championship after sweeping through the playoffs.

The only official “blemish” on Puigcerda's season was a shootout victory against second-place Anglet Hormadi Elite (a French team admitted to the Spanish league this season), which prevented Puigcerda from finishing the 10-game regular with the maximum possible 30 points.

Making the accomplishment even more special is the fact that the Puigcerda club celebrated its 50th anniversary this season. The tiny Catalonian town of 9,000 residents is one of the few places in soccer-and basketball-mad Spain where ice hockey is a central part of the local sports identity. A crowd of 1,500 turned out for the team's decisive win against Anglet in the playoff finals.

As far as the three primary domestic Spanish league competitions went, Puigcerda was unbeaten and untied. But the club also participated in the International Ice Hockey Federation's Continental Cup, losing in a preliminary qualifying round played in Romania.  In February, the team hosted and lost non-league tournament games to the Slovenian and French national under-20 teams.

That's not unusual, as Spanish hockey remains among the lower echelon of European countries that compete internationally. The goal of Spanish Ice Sports Federation has been get its players involved in a wider array of competitions against higher caliber opponents. It's the only way to improve, and Puigcerda players are frequently involved in these events.

As part of its 50th anniversary celebration, Puigcerda hosted the aforementioned February tournament, which also involved the Spanish senior national team as well as the Slovenian and French junior teams. Puigcerda downed Team Spain before losing to the its other opponents.

A dominant force in Spanish hockey
 
Currently, the caliber of Spanish hockey is roughly equivalent to the second or third divisions of higher-ranked European hockey countries. Some of the clubs are on shaky ground in terms of both leadership and sponsorship and it's not uncommon for clubs to be forced to drop out. By Spanish hockey standards, CG Puigcerda is a model team, at least at the senior hockey level.

The club is sufficiently well-funded to boast the highest budget in the LNHH, at a reported € 253,000 (about $391,500). Slovakian born and trained coach Oppitz has been able to lure a higher caliber of foreign players to Puigcerda than have the competing teams in the league. Puigcerda featured five imports this season -- four from Slovakia and one from the Czech Republic. What's more, some of the top native Spaniards in the league hail from Puigcerda and surrounding communities.

Puigcerda averaged a staggering 7.60 goals per game this season while allowing just 2.70 goals per game. All five of the foreign players previously played in the top minor leagues of their home country and were key to Puigcerda's success this season.

Left wing Peter Kotlarik led the team and league in scoring. Close on his heels were Puigcerda teammates Marek Nahlik and Marek Cmunt (who was originally a product of the Dukla Jihavla system in the Czech Republic). Center Tibor Tatar, who briefly played in the Slovak Extraliga in the late 1990s, was one of Puigcerda's top playmakers. Former Slovak national under-18 team goaltender Lubomir Misut has been with Puigcerda for the last three seasons, each of which culminated in a Spanish championship. 

CG Puigcerda center Salva Barnola, the team captain, averaged two points per game this year, and played a key role in their perfect season.
Among the native Spanish players, Puigcerda features five players who played for Team Spain at the 2008 IIHF Division II World Championships in Newcastle, Australia: center Salva Barnola (CG Puigcerda's captain), left wing Bastien Ribot, and defensemen Dani Hilario, Dani Almendros and Orlando Pereiro.

The 30-year-old Barnola is a Puigcerda native. He has been a fixture on Team Spain's junior and national senior teams for years. This year, he averaged two points per game during the Spanish season and punched in three goals and five points during the Division II World Championships. Hilario, 28, also hails from the town. He helped trigger the Puigcerda power play this year, and racked up 18 points (nine goals).
 
Capturing the Copa del Rey and playoff championship
 
Traditionally, the most notable hockey competition in Spain has been the Copa del Rey (King's Cup). If the name sounds familiar, it should, because it's used throughout Spanish sports. Spain's soccer clubs compete for a better-known prize of the same name and the basketball trophy is called the Copa del Rey de Baloncesto.

In Spain, the national league playoffs are conducted before the Copa del Rey, which marks the conclusion of the domestic hockey campaign. The playoffs ran from late February to late March, the Copa del Rey was conducted at the end of March.

In the playoffs, Puigcerda earned a quarterfinal bye. The club faced fifth-place regular-season squad ADR Gasteiz in the best-of-three semifinals. Puigcerda got off to a sluggish start in the first game, but went on to win, 7-4. The second game was more typical of the season, as Puigcerda scored five goals in each of the first two periods and went on to rout their opponents, 14-4.

The Spanish finals saw Puigcerda take on Anglet (which features an all-French roster). Puigcerda found itself trailing 5-4 after the second period, but rallied for three goals in the final period to claim a 7-6 victory. The Spanish team then nailed down another championship with an 8-6 victory.

Puigcerda carried over its momentum in successfully defended the Copa del Rey de Hockey Hielo. It crushed Anglet 9-5 in the semifinals, scoring five times in the first period. In the finals, played March 30, Puigcerda cruised past FC Barcelona, 6-2. The 2008-09 Spanish season will commence in September.



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