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Slovak championship three-peat for HC Kosice

by Bill Meltzer
While the Stanley Cup Playoffs are just getting started this week, the postseasons in the major European leagues are either complete or in the final round. Already there have been champions crowned in Slovakia as well as the Czech Republic and Switzerland.

Meanwhile, in Sweden's Elitserien, Farjestads BK is one win away from the championship. In Finland, the final series between HIFK Helsinki and the Espoo Blues gets underway this week. In Germany's DEL, prolific titlist Eisbaren Berlin will take on top-seeded Grizzly Adams Wolfsburg for the championship. In the KHL, Salavat Yulaev Ufa is a win away from capturing the title.

In weeks to come, Across the Pond will profile the title runs of several of the championship winners. This week, we will look at the titlists in the Slovak and Czech Extraliga and the Swiss National League A.

HC Kosice becomes a dynasty: Entering the 2010-11 hockey season, the powerhouse HC Kosice team was a favorite to contend for the championship in the Slovak Extraliga. The club had won the title in each of the two previous seasons, and its roster appeared stacked at every position relative to the rest of the league. The team didn't disappoint.

Kosice ran away with first place during the regular season, winning 38 of 57 games in regulation and 10 more via overtime or shootout. With an incredible 137 points, the team went wire-to-wire in first place and finished 26 points ahead of second-place HK Poprad. As one would expect from a team with such a dominant record, HC Kosice by far led the league in goals scored (217 GF, 30 more than Poprad) and allowed the fewest goals (102 GA, 33 less than Poprad) by an even wider margin.

Leading the way offensively for Kosice was right winger Miroslav Zalesak (combined 36 goals and 80 points in the regular season and playoffs), along with center Stanislav Gron (combined 24 goals, 59 points), center Jaroslav Kristek (19 goals, 59 points), left winger Michel Miklik (37 goals, 57 points) and right winger Peter Bartos (25 goals, 58 points). The club had a host of players who finished with at least a plus-20 defensive rating over the course of the regular season and playoffs, paced by defenseman Jan Tabacek (plus-64), Kristek (plus-64), Miklik (plus-60) and defenseman Jan Homer (plus-53).

In goal, 22-year-old starter Julius Hudacek made 59 starts over the course of the regular season and playoffs. With such a dominant team in front him, Hudacek made sure he held up his end of the bargain on the opposition shots that got on net. Not only did he allow a mere 1.66 goals per game and post a .939 save percentage, he also posted 10 shutouts. Meanwhile, backup Tomas Halasz had four shutouts and a 1.48 GAA in his 13 appearances (including two playoff outings).

During the playoffs, Kosice was relentless in its quest for its third straight title, going 12-2 overall (8-0 on home ice) en route to the crown. In the quarterfinals, Kosice dispatched Nitra in five games, dropping only a 3-1 decision on road ice in their first attempt to close out the series. Three nights later, Kosice cruised to a 5-0 shutout to end the series. In the semis, Kosice tore apart Dukla Trencin in a four-game sweep that saw the top-seeded team outscore its opponent by a combined score of 23-5. 

In the finals, second-seeded HK Poprad figured to provide the toughest opposition Kosice would face. Kosice defended its home ice with 3-0 and 3-1 wins. Poprad took a 2-1 decision in overtime in Game 3, but  Kosice put a stranglehold on the series with a 6-1 win in the next game. Back in Kosice for the fifth game, the team concluded its dream season with an easy 4-1 victory to capture the title.

Prior to its 2008-09 championship, HC Kosice had not won a Slovak championship in a decade. Now there's no end in sight to the team's burgeoning dynasty. Not only did the senior team make mincemeat of the rest of the circuit, its Under-20 and Under-18 junior teams also captured the championships in their respective leagues this season.

Trinec Capture First Czech Championship: As with HC Kosice in Slovakia, HC Oceleri Trinec entered the 2011 playoffs as the top team in the league during the regular season. The difference was that the competition in the Czech Extraliga is of a higher caliber than its Slovak counterpart and Trinec had never before won a Czech championship in its 80-year history.

This time around, there was simply no denying Trinec. As profiled last week, forward Martin Ruzicka enjoyed a record-setting playoff run, easily shattering a league postseason scoring record set in 1992 by future NHL star Zigmund Palffy. After posting 24 goals and 50 points in 51 regular season games, Ruzicka elevated his game even higher in the postseason. The 25-year-old forward racked up an incredible 17 goals, 16 assists and 33 points in 18 playoff matches.

In the decisive fifth game of the best-of-seven championship series, Trinec capped off its tremendous postseason with a 5-1 victory on home ice over HC Vitkovice Steel. Ruzicka kicked things off with a shorthanded goal just 1:39 after the opening faceoff, and the club never looked back.

The victorious Trinec squad simply had too much star power and depth for Vitkovice and its other playoff opponents to handle. In addition to Ruzicka, the roster boasted the likes of former NHL forwards Radek Bonk, Vaclav Varada, Vojtech Polak and Ladislav Kohn as well as former NHL defenseman Lukas Krajicek.

Davos grounds Flyers: The Swiss National League A playoff finals were far more competitive than the Czech or Slovak postseasons. In the final round, HC Davos forged a 3-0 lead in the series only to see the Kloten Flyers fight back to capture the next two games. Back in Kloten for Game 6, Davos dashed any hopes for an historic comeback.

Goals by Josef Marha and Peter Guggisberg gave Davos a 2-0 lead after two periods. The Flyers drew back within one goal just 1:38 into the third period on an Arnaud Jacquemet goal, but Guggisberg answered back barely a minute later to restore the two-goal margin. The insurance goal proved crucial as Steve Kellenberger once again cut Kloten's deficit to a single goal with 15:42 left on the clock, but Davos was able to kill off the remainder of the time to capture its 29th Swiss championship, including its fifth NLA crown since 2002.

Veteran Czech imports Petr Sykora (35 goals, 50 points), Jaroslav Bednar (21 goals, 49 points) and Josef Marha (22 points) were key components of Davos this season, along with Swiss vets Reto Von Arx (15 goals, 48 points) and Beat Forster (5 goals, 22 points). In goal, Leonardo Genoni posted a 1.92 goals-against average and 7 shutouts to accompany his stellar .941 save percentage in 50 games.
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