Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Newfoundland's Slaney and O'Brien face off in Prague

What difference does five and a half weeks make?

The last time Plzeň 1929 visited Sparta Praha, back on October 29, Sparta won 3-0 to leap over Plzeň in the standings. On Tuesday night, Sparta prevailed 4-3 and they again jumped ahead of their West Bohemian opponents in the standings. That doesn't seem odd until you consider that Plzeň was stripped of 19 points in the interim.

After that October 29 game, Sparta went 1-1-0-10 (on the 3-2-1-0 points scale) in its next 12 games to plunge into 12th place in the 14-team league. Since then, they've won two in a row, including Tuesday's game, to climb back up one notch to 11th. The team's struggles reflected in the crowd, with only 3,318 in attendance.

On the other side was Plzeň 1929. Between the October 29 and December 7 games at Sparta, they posted a record of 8-1-1-2, and would now find themselves in sixth place, if not for the 19 points they were penalized for dressing improperly-registered players. A serious blow, to be sure, but it hasn't seemed to have negatively affected their play.

"We get told a little bit about it," said John Lammers of Langley, BC. "All we know is we lost 19 points and we've just got to forget about it and play hard."

Plzeň was led offensively by the line of Nick Johnson, Radek Duda, and Martin Straka, which scored all three of the team's goals. Straka scored twice in the first period, including a power-play marker on a slapshot with four seconds left in the period to send the visitors to the room with a 2-1 lead.

Straka also showed he still has wheels at age 38 when he beat Petr Ton in a race for the puck in the second period to prevent Ton from getting a breakaway. Moments later, Sparta's Yorick Treille (a Frenchman who played Junior A hockey in Saskatchewan for the Notre Dame Hounds and NCAA hockey for UMass-Lowell) did get a breakaway and was hauled down by Jaroslav Modrý, resulting in a penalty shot. Treille made good on the attempt to tie the score.

Nick Johnson ties the score in the third period. Photo
courtesy Jan Beneš, www.sporting-photo.com.
With Sparta leading 3-2 with under 8:00 to play in the game, Windsor, CT's Johnson bunted home an airborne puck on a wild scramble to tie the score, but just 31 seconds later, Tomáš Kůrka scored the winning goal for Sparta on a stoppable-looking shot that goaltender Petr Přikryl was visibly upset with. It spoiled an otherwise fine performance by Přikryl, who made the save of the night in the second period when he stoned Radek Smoleňak with a toe save from point-blank range.

Karel Hromas and Marek Bartánus also scored for Sparta on the night. The last time these teams met, Tomáš Pöpperle recorded a shutout against his former team. Despite allowing 3 goals this time, he picked up the win, thanks to some rare goal support from his team.

Doug O'Brien and game-winning-goal scorer Tomáš Kůrka.
Photo courtesy Ladislav Adámek, www.getfoto.cz.
"Scoring a few goals, which is a good thing," said St. John's, NL's Doug O'Brien, explaining the biggest reason why the team's managed to win two in a row. "We've had trouble scoring goals lately. But two wins, that's the main thing. We want to get some wins under our belt and start climbing in the standings. We're working hard. In practice we've been working hard and it's shown the last two games."

John Slaney (left) trying to keep Petr Kafka in check.
Photo courtesy Jan Beneš, www.sporting-photo.com.
O'Brien wasn't the only Newfoundlander in the game. On Plzeň's blueline was John Slaney, also from St. John's. Slaney was immortalized in Canadian hockey history when he scored the game-winning goal against the Soviet Union to clinch the gold medal for Canada at the 1991 World Junior Championships. For O'Brien, who is 12 years Slaney's junior, he is definitely somebody to look up to.

"He's a legend, I think. Everybody looks up to him. He's played, what, about 20 years? Everybody knows him, for sure."

Slaney played the game with a low shield to protect the recently healed broken jaw that kept him out of the lineup for 11 games, though surprisingly not longer.

"(I returned) about three weeks early," he said after the game, "It's nice to get back and help the team. Tough loss tonight but lately things have gone better."

Sparta is now in 11th place with 33 points, 7 behind Benzina Litvínov, who currently occupy the 10th and final playoff position. Plzeň is three points behind Sparta, but have two games in hand.

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