Croatian season review

Croatian season review

25 Mar 2021 | Drazen Kramaric
 

After a difficult season, the title stay in Zagreb, but changes owner

 
 
 
 

Croatian championship for season 2019/20 was canceled near the end of the regular season out of concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic. It meant that 2019 champion KHL Zagreb was going to defend its title in season 2020/21. The same four teams were challenging the defending champion in the new season. They were Mladost, Medveščak mladi and Munje from Zagreb and Sisak from its namesake town.

Five teams were originally planned to play three matches against each opponent, 12 matches in total. Besides, Mladost, Zagreb and Medveščak mladi were scheduled to play in the International Hockey League (IHL) with the teams from Slovenia and Serbia. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic again negatively affected the season. The competition in IHL was canceled except for Slovenian teams. Also, the major earthquake in December 2020 hurts Sisak so Croatian federation ended the regular season after only two thirds of the matches were played.

Mladost won the regular season with eight victories scoring 23 points. Only Medveščak mladi managed to take a single point from Mladost in the 2:1 overtime defeat. Adding the previous season, this was the second consecutive season without a single defeat for Mladost. Zagreb was second with six victories and two losses, both against Mladost. Medveščak mladi, the spiritual successor of the former Medveščak who won Croatian championship 22 times and played in the EBEL (today the ICE Hockey League) and KHL, was third with victories against Munje and Sisak. The youngest Croatian club, Munje (Croatian for "Lightning") scored its first two victories in history, both against Sisak and won the fourth place and the place in the playoffs. Sisak ended at the bottom of the standings, without a single point.

Mladost was paired against Munje in the first semifinal match. There wasn't any doubt who was going to win two victories and qualify for the finals. Mladost won both matches easily with 11:3 and 8:4 and was ready for the final step towards the championship title.

The second match-up between Zagreb and Medveščak mladi, offered more uncertainity. Medveščak ("The Bears") won the first match 3:1. Zagreb realiated with convincing 7:1 victory in the second match. The defending champions ("The Boars") outplayed its opponent with 6:1 in the third, decisive match and qualified for the defense of the title against Mladost ("The Mammoths") in the finals.

In the ressurected match for the third place, played for the first time after ten years hiatus, Medveščak mladi won the bronze easily in two matches against Munje. The Bears won the first match with 15:2 and the second with 7:3.

KHL Zagreb's leading forwards were Luka Jarčov (29 caps for the national team), veteran Domen Vedlin (21) and Stjepan Čizmadija (3). Defense rested on young, but experienced Bruno Kegalj (24) and Tibor Stančić. Between the pipes was Luka Valenčić who ressurected his career after three years of little to none inactivity.

On the other side, Mladost could rely on the first goalie of the national team, Vilim Rosandić (13) with experience from Austrian and French top leagues. Main pillars of the defense were seasoned Nikša Trstenjak (14) and Jan Smolec (18). Top forwards of the team were Marko Šakić (39) and veterans Tadija Mirić (47) and Danijel Plahutar (46).

Mladost had clear advantage in goalkeeper and experience. It also had more depth with four lines and three defensive pairs while Zagreb had to rely on only two pairs of defenders and three lines. If the top Zagreb's players can make an advantage over their counterparts in Mladost and hold it until the final buzzer, „the boars“ had the chance, otherwise, it was expected for Mladost to make its depth felt, especially in the last periods.

The first match of the finals brought the drama that was to continue until the very last minute. Mladost took the lead in the very opening of the match, Marko Šakić scored. Almost two periods passed scoreless until Zagreb got the equaliser in the dying moments of the second period when young Dominic Čanić whose season in the Swedish fourth league was cancelled due to COVID-19 scored for the reigning champions. The last period and over time passed without goals so the winner was determined in the shoot-out. Bruno Kegalj scored the only goal for Zagreb's lead in the series.

Mladost again scored first in the second match. Teenage Nikola Kramarić put the Mammoths in the lead in the midst of the first period. Dominic Čanić equalised just after the first break. When it looked like history repeating itself, Mario Čunko and Marko Šakić scored in the last two minutes of the second period. Before Zagreb managed to react in the last period, former captain of Slovan Bratislava juniors, Petar Trstenjak put the difference to three goals. Mario Čunko scored his second goal near the end of the match for the final 5:1. Mladost has tied the series.

The third match is usually decisive in the “best of five” series. The first period was scoreless and the excitement built up as the second period started. Than all hell broke loose in Mladost’s territory. Domen Vedlin, Luka Jarčov, Tibor Stančić and Stjepan Čizmadija each, scored within four minutes and by the middle of the second period, the match was effectively over. Nikša Trstenjak scored the single goal for Mladost in the middle of the last period, but Luka Jarčov had the last word in this one sided match the Boars won 5:1. Zagreb was now one victory away from the title.

The Boars went to the next match to win the title. Domen Vedlin opened the score sheet in the middle of the first period. The nets were standing still until the finish of the second period when Bruno Kegalj increased Zagreb’s lead. Mladost went to full offensive in the last period and Mario Čunko revived the hope in the second part of the period. Few minutes later, another teenager, Lovro Hanžek, equalised the score. In the last minute of overtime, Petar Trstenjak scored the game winning goal.

The decisive match sublimed all the excitement from the previous duels into the last sixty minutes. Mario Čunko opened the lead for Mladost in the middle of the first period. The same player scored again in the last seconds of the period. Zagreb did not give up so Filip Jarčov cut the Mladost’s lead in half and Jan Novotny equalised in the finish of the period. Therefore, after 290 minutes of play, the contestants were still in the perfect balance. Tadija Mirić scored his first goal in the series in the opening minutes of the last period. It seemed that there was going to be more goals, but Vilim Rosandić put a lock on his goal and Mladost defended its lead even when Zagreb pulled its goalie for the sixth skater in the last minutes of the match.

Mladost won its only second title since Croatia become independent. The mammoths put the crown on their two consecutive seasons without a defeat in the regular season match. The struggle in the finals was at moments desperate, but the quality and the depth of the team eventually prevailed against the determined and very motivated opponent. Due to a pandemic, no spectators were allowed throughout the season, but the hockey fans could enjoy the games by watching streams provided by the Croatian Hockey Federation.

In the good old days, the national team preparations and World Championship were going to follow the end of the national championship. Unfortunately, pandemic caused IIHF to cancel all but the top tournaments so Croatian team is going to pass the second consecutive World Championship. This season was difficult for Croatian hockey, but all the clubs survived and there’s hope that in the Autumn everything is going to back to normal which means that International Hockey League is going to be international again and Croatian championship will be as exciting as the one just behind us.


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