Monday, March 12, 2012

Sparta avoids disaster at home

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On Saturday night, Tipsport Arena in Prague and ČEZ Arena in Plzeň hosted the second games of Czech Extraliga quarterfinal series, with the home teams winning. For Sparta Praha, the win was much more crucial, and by much narrower a margin.

Sparta Praha 3 - 2 Kometa Brno (shootout)
(Best-of-seven series tied 1-1)

Tomáš Pöpperle stops Jakub Svoboda to end the game.
Photo: Jan Beneš,
After dropping the first game of the series, Sparta could ill afford to lose a second straight at home. They won to even the series, but barely, as it took a shootout to get the desired result.

Kometa almost pulled it off even though they were dealt a blow in the game's opening minute, when leading scorer Miroslav Holec got tangled awkwardly with Sparta's David Kočí and fell into the boards. Holec suffered an apparent shoulder injury and didn't return.

Kočí was assessed a minor penatly for holding on the play, and Sparta down two men early after Yorick Treille was sent off for tripping 1:09 later. On the two-man advantage, Jozef Kovačík opened the scoring on a one-time bullet from the point.

The score was 1-1 after one period, thanks to Dominik Pacovský's rebound goal, and 2-2 after two periods; Mario Bližňák finished off a nice three-way passing play with Petr Tenkrát and Petr Ton for Sparta and Tomáš Svoboda replied for Kometa after taking a drop pass from Jakub Svoboda (no relation).

The third period and overtime were both scoreless. Sparta had the better chances, but Jiří Trvaj made great saves off of Pacovský and later Alex Foster, whom he robbed with the glove.

"It was Troy (Milam) that gave me a nice pass from behind the net," Foster said about his chance. "It came out front right onto my stick. I tried to go top shelf with it and maybe I should have gone the other way with it, to the blocker side, but anyway the goalie made a really good save."

A nervous crowd in Prague became even moreso in the extra period when the home team had to kill off two penalties, while Brno had to kill off one. Goaltender Tomáš Pöpperle saved Sparta's bacon when he made an unbelievable pad save off of Róbert Petrovický from in close while facing the wrong way; Sparta's best chance was a three-on-one, but the puck was bouncing and they didn't get a good shot.

In the shootout, Ton's shot in the second round went off the post and in for the only goal, while Pöpperle denied all three shooters he faced. When he stopped Jakub Svoboda to end the game, the cheer that rang out from Tipsport Arena was more of a collective exhail. Disaster had been avoided.

It doesn't get any easier for Sparta, though, as they now must play their next two games at noisy Kajot Arena in Brno.

"(Kometa) are difficult to play at home because they get a big boost from their fans," Foster said of the upcoming games. "Both games we played there this year, it was pretty loud and it's probably going to be even louder in the playoffs, so we've got to take the crowd out of it. Hopefully score an early goal."

Plzeň 5 - 1 Zlín
(Plzeň leads best-of-seven series 2-0)

Martin Straka led Plzeň's offence with 3 points in game 2.
Photo: Milan Podpera,
Though Plzeň 1929 has had fewer problems with its second-round opponent, their 5-1 victory on Saturday night was not as easy as the score indicates. The visitors from Zlín outshot the home side by a 33-28 margin, and it was the goaltending of Adam Svoboda that provided the difference.

Zlín goaltender Jakub Sedláček conceded a weak-angle shot from Ondřej Havlíček to open the scoring in the eighth minute just after his team had killed off a penalty. He made 23 saves in the game.

At the other end, Svoboda was beaten only once in the game, a puck that was actually put into the net by the skate of defenceman Jiří Marušák that was credited to Antonín Honejsek, which cut the lead to 2-1. It remained a one-goal game for half of the third period before the Indians put it away with three goals late in the third.

"I'm not going to worry about it," Svoboda said after the game to's Petr Naar about the miscue that led to the Zlín goal. "Zlín had plenty of other chances and I stopped the others. That's just what happens in hockey sometimes."

Captain, general manager, and part owner Martin Straka had three assists for Plzeň in the game, and Václav Pletka scored two goals: the game-winner on a two-man advantage midway through the second period and the game's final goal with only nine seconds on the clock. Nick Johnson and Jan Kovář also had two-point nights.

Like the Sparta-Kometa series, this series now shifts venues and resumes on Wednesday and Thursday. Zlín will be looking to take both games on home ice if they want to seriously entertain thoughts of winning the series. But though Plzeň is up 2-0, they know they cannot afford to rest.

"We have the lead in the series and that's what we wanted. That was our goal for the home games and we did it, so we have some satisfaction," said Svoboda. "But we have to go to Zlin as if it were still 0-0. We have to play like we did today. The home fans will drive their team, so for us it is not simple at all."

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