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Stifling defense key to dramatic Sparta turnaround

by Bill Meltzer /
The age-old hockey axiom that scoring wins fans but defense wins championships translates just as easily into Czech as it does to the game's other languages. It is no coincidence that the team which has by far allowed the fewest goals in the Extraliga this season is the same one that has opened up a six-point lead atop the standings with eight games remaining: HC Sparta Prague.

Coming off a disastrous 2011-12 regular season that saw the team finish 12th in the 14-team league, a retooled Sparta roster has rededicated itself to team defense this season under the direction of new head coach Josef Jandac. Previously the head coach of HC Pardubice and an assistant coach on the Czech Republic's gold medal-winning squad at the 2010 World Championships, Jandec focused primarily on improving on last season's 2.73 goals-against average (eighth in the league) and minus-27 goal differential (11th).

Through their first 44 games of the 52-game regular season, Sparta has held opponents to 91 goals (an average of 2.07 per game). (Photo: Scott Levy/NHLI)
The results have been dramatic. Through their first 44 games of the 52-game regular season, Sparta has held opponents to 91 goals (an average of 2.07 per game). The next-best defensive team, HC Mountfield Ceske Budejovice, has yielded 15 more goals. Meanwhile, Sparta has been remarkably successful at converting transition opportunities into power plays and goals. With a plus-50 goal differential, Sparta is 13 goals in the black over second-ranked HC Plzen, which has tallied 153 goals while yielding 116 in one fewer game played than Sparta.

In some ways, the start of HC Sparta's incredible turnaround from last season can be traced back to its performance against the New York Rangers as part of the 2011 Compuware NHL Premiere Challenge. Although Sparta lost the game by a 2-0 score, the team outplayed the Rangers in a scoreless first period and stayed competitive throughout in a game it wanted to win for its home fans at Prague's Tipsport Arena.

At the time of the exhibition against the Rangers, Sparta was winless in its first three regular season games of 2011-12, yielding three or more goals in each tilt. Immediately thereafter, the club reeled off a stretch of seven wins in its next eight games, which included a pair of shutout victories and a 1-0 decision via shootout after a scoreless duel against local archrival HC Slavia Prague.

"We have gained confidence as a team," Jandac told the team's official site. "I am happy with how our team has responded and pursued the puck with determination, but also patience."

Sparta has also been red-hot of late, although it let down a bit in a recent 5-4 overtime loss to HC Kometa Brno. The team has gained points in nine straight games (7-0-2) heading into a road match against HC Vitkovice. Overall, Sparta has gone 9-1-2 since a mini-break over Christmas.

Among the players on the Sparta roster, NHL fans are most likely to be familiar with goaltender Tomas Popperle, right winger Petr Tenkrat, and American import Alex Foster.


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Meanwhile, the team's most gifted offensive performer, Petr Ton, has been a mainstay on the club for many years. With 50 points to date (22 goals, 28 assists), Ton is currently tied with HC Plzen's Radek Duda and Bili Tygri veteran Petr Nedved for top scoring honors in the Extraliga.

Popperle, a former member of the Columbus Blue Jackets, has been the top statistical goaltender in the league this season. The 27-year-old ranks atop the league with a 1.99 goals-against average, .937 save percentage and five shutouts. He is a virtual lock to represent the Czech Republic in the upcoming Oddset Hockey Games, a Euro Hockey Tour event that serves as preparation for the World Championship.

"He has played great in goal, and stolen us a few wins," veteran defenseman Radek Phillip told RedsTV. "We feel like every game, he is going to give us a chance to win if we play as we should."

While goaltending and team defense have been the team's backbone this year, Sparta's offense has also been bolstered since last season. Tenkrat, 34, was signed as a free agent after spending last season in Finland and most of the three preceding campaigns in Sweden. The former Boston Bruins winger has been a fine complement to Ton, scoring 19 goals among his 43 points to date. Along with veteran center Michal Bros and Ton, Tenkrat brings a lot of veteran experience to the Sparta forward lineup.

Foster, 27, is one of two North American imports on the team, along with offensive-minded defenseman Troy Milam. Briefly a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs (three games in 2007-08), Foster has provided a steady two-way presence for Sparta this season. In addition to his 9 goals and 20 points, Foster boasts a solid plus-12 defensive rating at even strength. The 31-year-old Milam has made his presence felt on the power play, and has collected 7 goals and 19 points to date.

Sparta has also benefited from the reunion of 30-year-old veteran Ivan Rachunek with his 20-year-old brother Tomas Rachunek. The elder brother, who was once a draftee of the Tampa Bay Lightning, is in his first season with Sparta after spending most of his career with HC Zlin. Ivan ranks fifth on the team with 23 points (7 goals, 16 assists). Tomas, meanwhile, has emerged over the last two seasons as one of the Extraliga's most promising young players. After spending part of last season with HC Plzen, the younger Rachunek brother has tallied 10 goals for Sparta this season.

Phillip and his Slovakian partner, Michal Sersen, have been Sparta's top defensive duo. The 34-year-old Phillip, who has 3 goals and 12 points, ranks among the league leaders with a plus-15 rating this season. The veteran remains the most physical member of the team's defense corps, and leads the team with 84 penalty minutes. Sersen, a 25-year-old former Pittsburgh Penguins prospect, is new to Sparta this season. To date, he has 3 goals, 20 points and a plus-13 rating.

If the regular season ended today, Sparta would play eighth-seeded HC Trinec in the first round of the playoffs. Last season, Trinec captured the Extraliga championship for the first time in its history, which dates back to 1929. Trinec currently has a one-point lead on the Jaromir Jagr-owned HC Rytiri Kladno for the final playoff berth. Regardless of opponent, eight-time champion Sparta will be gunning this spring for its first crown in the least five seasons but fifth since the start of the new millennium.
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