Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Junior Extraliga playoffs get underway

On Wednesday, the main event of the Czech hockey world will be the seventh game of the Extraliga quarterfinal series between Bílí Tygři Liberec and Slavia Praha. On Thursday, the professional circuit takes the day off, while its U20 counterpart, the Junior Extraliga, takes centre stage.

Třinec's Jakub Herman and Sparta's Jakub Kolář in Junior Extraliga
action at Prague's Tesla Arena. Photo: Jan Beneš,
It's unusual for junior hockey to ever get much attention in the Czech Republic, or anywhere else in Europe, for that matter. This was one of the biggest differences I noticed in hockey culture when I first arrived from Canada, where, particularly in small towns, a player on the local junior team is often a local celebrity. The top junior teams in the Czech Republic play at a level that is roughly similar to Canadian Junior "A" hockey (or tier-two junior, as it is sometimes called), but get much less attention from the general public. Whereas it is normal in Canada for 2,000 people to pay $10 to watch Junior "A" hockey, admittance to Junior Extraliga games is free, and yet usually draw only friends and family to watch. This is despite the fact that there are often numerous prospects playing.

The problem is, because it gets so little attention, a good portion of the public is totally unaware that there is good-quality hockey to be seen for free. I thought I would try to help raise that awareness a bit, with the playoffs upon us, to provide some basic information about when and where some of these games can be seen, and which players to watch for.

Karlovy Vary's Jaromír Kverka. Photo: Jan Čech, Karlovarský
There are eight teams in the Junior Extraliga playoffs. Ranked in order of regular season finish, they are Sparta Praha, Vítkovice Steel, Slavia Praha, PSG Zlín, Orli Znojmo, Oceláři Třinec, Energie Karlovy Vary, and Benzina Litvínov. In the quarterfinal round, they are paired in the normal highest versus lowest way, and teams are then re-seeded in the semifinals. All three rounds consist of best-of-three series.

The quarterfinal round begins on Thursday, with second and third games going Saturday and Sunday. The winners of those series advance to the semifinals, which will be played Tuesday the 22nd, Thursday the 24th, and Friday the 25th. The finals then go Sunday the 27th, Tuesday the 29th, and Wednesday the 30th. In all cases, the series begins at the home of the lower-seeded team, with the second and third games at the home of the higher-seeded team. Of course, in all cases, the third games will only be played if the first two are split.

Even at the junior level, the Slavia-Sparta rivalry is a fierce one.
Photo: Jan Beneš,
With the exception of Slavia Praha, all of the teams play in the same homes as their senior counterparts. Slavia plays at Zimní stadion Eden in Prague's Vršovice district, rather than the cavernous O2 Arena, for obvious reasons. Eden was home to Slavia's Extraliga club until 2004, and still houses their youth programs and training facilities. For Prague residents who have never been there, it is within walking distance of tram stop Kubanské náměstí, accessible via trams 6, 7, 18, and 22.

Here are the following quarterfinal match-ups, with players to watch for and the series schedule. In the case of some players, I am not totally sure they will be playing, as they have moved between the Junior Extraliga and other levels, including the professional Extraliga, throughout the season. Except where noted, all players mentioned represented the Czech Republic at an international event at some level this season.

(1) Sparta Praha vs (8) Benzina Litvínov

Sparta's lineup includes a quartet of players who are hopefuls for next year's World Junior team: fowards Tomáš Rubeš and Daniel Přibyl and defencemen Dušan Žovinec and Jakub Kolář. It's uncertain whether World Junior goaltender Filip Novotný or forward David Tůma will drop down from the pro club to play in the Junior Extraliga playoffs. Litvínov, who is a heavy underdog in this series, counters with a couple hopefuls of their own: forward Pavel Smolka and defenceman Vladimír Eminger. As well, 17 year olds Jakub Matai and Jakub Šrámek both played for the Czech Republic at the U18 tournament in Hradec Králové in February and are hopefuls for the U18 World Championships in April.

Thu, 17 @ Litvínov, 17:30
Sat, 19 @ Sparta, 19:00
Sun, 20 @ Sparta, 16:00 (if necessary)

(2) Vítkovice Steel vs (7) Energie Karlovy Vary

This strong Víktovice team is led by a trio of prospects. At forward is Adam Řehák, a cut from this year's World Junior team who is considered a strong candidate to make it next year. On defence, 17-year-old Tomáš Pavelka was one of the top defencemen for the U18 team in Hradec Králové and is expected to be on the World Championship team in April. Joining him in Germany at the U18 tournament will likely be goaltender Patrik Bartošák, who finished second in the Junior Extraliga with 3 shutouts. It's not currently known whether 16-year-old Australian Nathan Walker will play in the Junior Extraliga playoffs or not. He split the majority of the season between Vítkovice's junior and starší dorost (major midget) teams. He made a memorable impression in the Junior Extraliga when he scored 6 goals in a single game back on December 11.

Karlovy Vary is led in goal by Vladislav Habal, who turns 20 in April. Though he hasn't represented the Czech Republic since the U17 level, he may have rescued a lost career this year with a phenomenal season. He appeared in 46 of Karlovy Vary's 50 games, leading the league in goals-against average (1.97) and shutouts (5). He may have to continue that play in a series against a Vítkovice club with a lot of firepower. Otherwise, forwards Jaromír Kverka and Michal Vachovec are in the hunt for World Junior spots next year and Petr Koblasa will likely be seen at the World U18 Championships.

Thu, 17 @ Karlovy Vary, 17:30
Sat, 19 @ Vítkovice,13:00
Sun, 20 @ Vítkovice, 17:00 (if necessary)

(3) Slavia Praha vs (6) Oceláři Třinec

Top prospects for Slavia up front include Tomáš Hertl and Jan Müller. 17-year-old Hertl is looking to make the U18 team next month, while 18-year-old Müller might receive an invite to try out for next year's World Junior team. On defence, Štěpán Jeník is expected to be one of the Czechs' top defencemen at the upcoming U18 tournament. 17 year olds Tomáš Moravec, and Antonín Růžička (son of Vladimír Růžička) both played for the U18 team in Hradec Králové, but might be playing the playoffs at the starší dorost level. If their pro team loses in Liberec on Wednesday, they could be joined by 17-year-old sensation Dmitrij Jaškin, although that may be wishful thinking, since Jaškin didn't play a single game at the Junior level all season. For Třinec, defenceman Filip Pavlík and forward Jakub Herman are both candidates for next year's World Junior squad, and 17-year-old Radek Faksa could be playing the playoffs at either the junior or starší dorost levels.

Thu, 17 @ Třinec, 17:00
Sat, 19 @ Slavia, 16:00
Sun, 20 @ Slavia, 15:15 (if necessary)

(4) PSG Zlín vs (5) Orli Znojmo

Zlín's biggest edge may come from their elimination from the professional Extraliga, which frees up defenceman Dalibor Řežniček and forward Petr Holík. Both played in the World Junior Championships in Buffalo this season, as well as significant time in the pro circuit. Both names have been mentioned in connection with the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. Režniček is in his last year of junior eligibility, but Holík still has another year. He's a lock to make the Czech World Junior team, and forward Tomáš Fořt and defencemen Tomáš Valenta and Petr Zámorský are also candidates. For Znojmo, defenceman Martin Pláněk and forward Tomáš Rachůnek spent most of the year with Znojmo's First League team, but since they're out of the playoffs, they may be sent in to reinforce the junior team.

Thu, 17 @ Znojmo, 17:30
Sat, 19 @ Zlín,12:30
Sun, 20 @ Zlín, 12:30 (if necessary)

For a complete schedule and summaries of completed games, click here.

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