KOSICE, Slovakia – As a little boy he had idolised him. On Friday, 20-year-old HC Kosice goaltender Julius Hudacek stopped three Zigmund Palffy penalty shots in game six of the final series against HK 36 Skalica en route to the club’s first title since 1999 and its fourth in history.
With the victory, Kosice completed a near-perfect season that saw it dominate the Slovakian Extraliga from start to finish. Their only misfortune was the fact that they missed out on the Champions Hockey League after losing in the qualifying stage. By claiming the title HC Kosice has guaranteed its ticket to the main stage of the lucrative competition next season.
Game six was a true nail biter. Skalica twice came back from behind and took the game to overtime. Just like game five, both teams could not find an opening in the extra ten minutes forcing a shootout.
Skalica was successful in the shootout two days ago, but was facing a different goaltender this time. It proved to be the key to the title. Hudacek played only his first game in this final series and had just came off a monster 41-save performance that night. In the shootout, he turned away five of six shots earning HC Kosice a 2-1 victory and the league title.
“Such tense matches suit me,” a delighted Hudacek said afterwards. “I only learned from head coach Anton Tomko that I would be in net on Thursday . This was the biggest game of my career so far.”
With the Extraliga title, a long dry spell has finally been stopped. Since winning the title in 1999, HC Kosice was eliminated in the semi-finals five times and twice finished as runner-up behind Slovan Bratislava.
Everybody had expected the two rivals to meet in the final series again but when the dust of two emotional and wild semi-final series had settled, Skalica beat Slovan 4-3 while HC Kosice prevailed against HKM Zvolen, also in seven games.
Not many would have bet on a HK 36 Skalica victory against HC Kosice, especially not after going down 0-3 in the series. But with their backs against the wall, Zigmund Palffy's team won game four, 8-2, and then stole game five in a shootout in Kosice.
The importance of Palffy on the Skalica team has been often mentioned but the numbers undoubtedly back it up. Together with linemate Juraj Mikus, the tandem has demolished the opposition all season. They combined for 189 points in the regular season and dominated the stats in the playoffs. In 17 games, Palffy produced a massive 51 points, 20 more than the number two on the list, Juraj Mikus and Rudolf Huna (Kosice).
“If I’d scored at least once it would be good but I made mistakes,” Palffy said about his penalty shots. “But shootouts remain a lottery. We didn’t lose the game there but we did when we didn’t score on two five-on-three power-play opportunities. It was a good series against a quality team. Our young team has the future if we can keep the players together. This series will only add to our experience.”
The grapes were sour for HK 36 Skalica which is emerging as a force to be reckoned with since Palffy’s return. Last season they reached the semi-finals, almost upsetting Kosice.
HK 36 Skalica coach Jan Faith, who won two league titles with Kosice in the past, watched the game-winning penalty shot put in by his son, Juraj. The 33-year-old Kosice captain was obviously delighted to thwart his father’s team.
“I waited for this an awfully long time. It’s the highlight of my career,” Faith shouted after the game. “My father congratulated me straight after the game. He's already won some titles. Now I can finally say the same. We will have some family celebrations nonetheless.”
The younger Faith was full of praise for his opponents.
“Skalica had a fantastic season but lacked the sequential results we have posted; fourth, third, last year second and now the gold,” hinting a potential pattern here that would have Skalica win the title next season.
For now, HK 36 Skalica went home empty handed. With HC Kosice winning both the regular season and the playoffs, the regular season runner-up is awarded a ticket for the qualification stage of the CHL next season. Slovan Bratislava finished second ahead of Skalica meaning the Slovak giants shattered season has a little silver lining in the end.
“I am looking forward to arrive in Kosice where we will meet with the fans. They have been fantastic this season and we want reward them for their continuous support,” head coach Anton Tomko knew.
“After ten years we finally regained the title. It is now in correct hands.”Notebook:
- HK 36 Skalica forward Zigmund Palffy broke the Slovak league point record and the record of the longest point streak. He was stopped in game two of the finals after scoring in 25 straight games (45 points).
- Until game five, Kosice hadn’t lost to Skalica at home since February 2007. Before then, the new champions won 14 times in a row.
- Two players from this year's Kosice team were also on the title team ten years ago; forward Jaroslav Kmit and defenceman Juraj Kledrowetz.
- For the first time in three seasons Slovan Bratislava was not in the finals. One of the big favourites, Slovan was eliminated in the semi-finals. They are expected to make many off-season changes both on and off the ice.
- Slovakian teams aiming for the title next season might consider acquiring Kosice forward Juraj Sykora. The Bratislava-born player left Slovan last summer and won his third consecutive Extraliga title.