Thursday, March 15, 2012

Sparta and Zlín win pivotal quarterfinal games

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In a best-of-seven series, the third game is always key, whether it's 1-1 or 2-0 going in. On the road, Sparta Praha won to take a 2-1 lead in Brno, while Zlín got its first win of the series on home ice against Plzeň.

Kometa Brno 2 - 5 Sparta Prague
(Sparta leads best-of-seven series 2-1)

Alex Foster (23) tied the game 1-1 early in the second period.
Photo: Michal Eger,
After maybe being fortunate to escape the first two games at home with a split, Sparta Praha knew it wasn't out of the woods yet, as they had to play two games in probably the loudest arena in the Extraliga--Kajot Arena in Brno. After falling behind in the first, they took control of the game in the second period and ultimately cruised to victory, taking a 2-1 lead in the series.

In fact, Sparta was lucky to escape the first period down only a goal. The always noisy Brno crowd was even more pumped up than usual for a playoff encounter against one of the more hated opponents: the perennial powerhouses from the nation's capital. After Sunday's game, forward Alex Foster said that the key for a road team in Brno was taking the crowd out of it early, but at that Sparta failed miserably on Wednesday. Tomáš Pöpperle, one of the biggest keys to Sparta's first-place finish this year, was the main reason they were still in the game after 20 minutes.

In the 13th minute, Tomáš Svoboda finally scored the game's first goal when Jiří Vašiček's shot from the point went in off his skate. This pumped up the home crowd and the pressure continued. In the last two minutes of play, the puck went in again, but the net had been dislodged moments before, and a penalty shot was awarded. Martin Erat took the shot and tried to go through Pöpperle's legs, but was denied.

If the first period was dominated by Kometa, Sparta was perhaps even more dominant in the second period. They scored three goals to take control of the game, They got goals from Foster, Petr Ton, and then late in the period Michal Sersen on the power play to give the visitors a 3-1 lead heading to the final period.

When Mario Bližňák made it 4-1 early in the third, it seemed pretty academic afterward. Erat closed the score to 4-2, but Petr Tenkrát put it away late on a delayed penalty.

PSG Zlín 1 - 0 Plzeň 1929
(Plzeň leads best-of-seven series 2-1)

Despite all the traffic, Luboš Horčička stopped everything thrown
at him on Wednesday night. Photo: Jiří Zaňát,
After coming up empty on the road, Zlín finally got on the win column on home ice. Like the game in Brno, it was first period goaltending that the victors should be thankful for. Thanks to three power plays, the visitors from Plzeň had the lion's share of chances in the opening frame, but Luboš Horčička kept them off the board.

Early in the second period, Antonín Honejsek fed a perfect pass to Ondřej Veselý, who re-directed the puck past Adam Svoboda for the game's first, and ultimately only, goal. It would be the only blemish on an otherwise masterful night for Svoboda, who stopped 31 of 32 shots and spent the rest of the night keeping his team within a goal.

However, Plzeň's offence was stifled after that, and could never again mount the sustained pressure that they had in the first period. They did have a couple of good chances in the third period, particularly on a goalmouth scramble with eight minutes left when Horčička stopped the puck on the goal line, but kept it out. But the late push for an equalizer never really came, and the game ended 1-0.

Now, both Brno and Zlín trail 2-1 in games with critical fourth games at home. If either is to lose, they will face the prospect of having to win three straight games, two of which will be in enemy territory.

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