Last season, with the help of a few imports from North America, HC Plzeň 1929 finished first place in the Tipsport Extraliga before bowing out in the quarter-finals. This season, things haven't gone quite as well. Still, with four North Americans on their roster, the "Indians", as they are known colloquially, are likely to command more attention in North America than any other team in the league.
They currently have defensemen John Slaney from St. John's, NL and Nick St. Pierre from St-Étienne, QC and forwards John Lammers from Langley, BC and Nick Johnson from Windsor, CT. To Canadians, Slaney is by far the most noteworthy name, by virtue of his winning goal at the 1991 IIHF U20 World Championships followed by his lengthy career in the NHL and AHL. Currently, however, Slaney is on the sideline. He broke his jaw October 12 against Mladá Boleslav and is due back in mid-December.
Last Friday night, the rest of the Plzeň team paid a visit to Prague's TESLA Arena to take on HC Sparta Praha. Sparta had a pair of North American defensemen in their lineup, Brian Salcido from Los Angeles, CA and Doug O'Brien who, like Slaney, hails from St. John's.
It was Salcido who broke the goose-egg in the first period with a shot from the high slot that beat goaltender Marek Mazanec inside the post. For Salcido, who was known as an offensive defenseman in the AHL, it was his second goal of the season.
Minutes later, it appeared that the Plzeň duo of Lammers and Johnson may have tied the game, but referee Milan Minař blew the whistle first, claiming that Sparta goaltender Tomáš Pöpperle had covered the puck. Lammers explained, "I took a shot and there was a rebound lying in the crease. Johnson whacked it in but unfortunately there was a quick whistle."
After that, Pöpperle was perfect the rest of the way, posting 21 saves and earning his second straight shutout.
Like Pöpperle, O'Brien played for Plzeň last season, which made the win feel even better. "Yeah, defintely. It feels great to beat 'em. Lot of old buddies so it feels good to beat them. They beat us last time in a close game and tonight was a pretty close game."
For the past few games, O'Brien has been paired on the blueline with Michal Gulaší, who is one of Sparta's harder hitters.Though it wasn't an overly rough contest, Gulaší was a noted physical presence on the back end. "He throws the body around a lot. It's a big part of his game. He loves to do it. I love watching him."
After Salcido's first period tally, Karel Hromas scored late in the second and again midway through the third period to give Sparta a 3-0 victory. The win gave Sparta 22 points on the season and moved them one ahead of Plzeň into the tenth place in a tight race for playoff spots. O'Brien added, "It's a big win for us. With the new coach (Miloš Holaň) that's two in a row for us. The guys are excited. Back to back shoutouts; Pöpperle's played great for us."
As far as Plzeň is concerned, they were last season's regular season champions and their record to this point is certainly a disappointment. Unfortunately, an even bigger disappointment would be in store a few days later.
On Tuesday, Czech Ice Hockey Association Competition Director Stanislav Šulc dropped a bomb, stating that three teams, Kladno, Mladá Boleslav and Plzeň, had played games with improperly registered players and would likely be forced to forfeit points accumulated in games where the ineligible players participated.
The players reported were Kladno's Jindřich Kotrla, Mladá Boleslav's Tomáš Divíšek, Jiří Marušák and Peter Fabuš, and Plzeň's Tomáš Frolo and Petr Přikryl.
As Kotrla played only eight games and Kladno was almost certain to finish in last place anyway, they are least affected by this ruling. However, for Mladá Boleslav and Plzeň, the results could be disastrous. Mladá Boleslav would lose 22 points and Plzeň 19, making the playoffs a virtual impossibility. What's more, Boleslav would drop below Kladno into last place, meaning they might end up having to play a series to avoid relegation to the First National League.