KARLOVY VARY, Czech Republic – Karlovy Vary wrote history on Sunday by claiming their first Czech Extraliga title in great fashion. Down 0-3 after 10 minutes, they came back to beat last year’s champion Slavia Prague 4-3 on home ice. Forward Lukas Pech scored the title-winning goal at 52:39.
Pech was overwhelmed with joy after the game but remained modest. “This is an amazing feeling, it ranks as high as the birth of my son. However, it’s not me who is the hero tonight,” he claims. “We all are heroes tonight. The team spirit was exceptional and shows that we have an excellent group of players here.”
Slavia Prague star forward Jaroslav Bednar was not as jubulant. “We stopped playing after twenty minutes. You can’t win games this way,” said Bednar, who played the finals with a fractured leg.
The victory sent a shock through Czech ice hockey. Karlovy Vary was only the sixth seed going into the playoffs but overcame both capital city giants Sparta and Slavia in the surge for gold.
The pattern of the two Prague scalps was comparable. In both the series, the teams exchanged wins before Karlovy Vary came up big in game three and four. Sparta and Slavia won game five on home ice before falling victim on enemy territory in game six.
“The two away wins in game three and four were the key to this success,” said Pech. “I am delighted that we finished the job on home ice and did not fail like Ostrava.” Earlier in the quarterfinals, Slavia was on the brink of elimination, down 3-1 against Vitkovice but won its final three games.
It’s a dream come true for the ambitious team management. Their plans to join the KHL might be hampered due to the current financial climate, but next season they will play in a new 6,000-seat arena.
Karlovy Vary doesn’t have a history filled with titles. Until the early nineties, the team played a marginal role in Czech hockey. The turn around came in 1991 when the current management stepped in and financial support came from a local liquor company.
Two titles in three seasons lifted the team from third level to Extraliga in 1997. Initially struggling to survive, Karlovy Vary finished around 10th for almost a decade. The first signs of success came three seasons ago when they earned a playoff berth. Although the team was eliminated the quarterfinals, the players and management finally tasted the post-season sweets.
And it made them hungry.
In 2007-08 the team rocketed to a second place in the Extraliga just behind Bili Tygri Liberec. The post-season run lasted as far as the finals where they were eliminated by Slavia Prague in a tantalizing seven-game series.
Not so this year in the re-match between the same teams.
After thee years of solid service, coach Zdenek Venera was replaced with Josef Palecek and the change paid dividends. “We are rewarded for our patient work throughout the season. In the playoffs, the players began to play the hockey we are capable of,” he said. “It wasn’t always beautiful but the hard work paid off.”
There was no lack of support from the fans. People showed up in masses and were as vocal. The city centre has turned green and yellow during the playoff finals. On Easter Sunday bars remained open all night giving fans the opportunity to celebrate the historic victory.
For the first time since 2006, the trophy isn't in Prague. Along with Liberec and Moeller Pardubice, Karlovy Vary joined the upper echelon of Czech hockey. Mainly known for spa treatments and a liqueur, Karlovy Vary can be added on the hockey map.
Now with the first mountain climbed, Karlovy Vary is anxious to represent their country in the Champions Hockey League next season. “I think this club’s future is very rosy,” team captain Vaclav Skuhravy said. “But first we will celebrate this great success.”
And with him will be many in West Bohemia. Notebook:
- Despite his injury, Jaroslav Bednar won the post-season scoring title alongside teammate Roman Cervenka. Both players notched 24 points in 18 games.
- Karlovy Vary goaltender Lukas Mensator was instrumental for his team in winning the playoffs. He posted a 94 save percentage and a 2.27 GAA
- Defenceman Josef Reznicek ended his career on a high note. The 42-year-old veteran showed no signs of rust this season leading all Karlovy Vary defencemen in points. After 1,035 Extraliga games, Reznicek retires with a gold medal.