PRAGUE—Led by the phenomenal goaltending of Ryan Miller, Sparta Praha continued its World Hockey League dominance by securing its second title in three years on Sunday.
After winning the championship in 2008, the Spartans temporarily relocated to Colorado in 2009, only to find themselves a distant second to the runaway Saginaw Spirit. Having returned to the comfort of Prague this year, the Spartans came roaring back, showing remarkable resilience throughout the season in a fierce battle with the upstart Portland Pints, who were seeking their first championship after sixth- and seventh-place finishes the last two seasons.
While Miller was unquestionably the team and league MVP after posting a league-leading 326 points, it was fellow goaltender Evgeni Nabokov who led the charge in the final week, accruing 22 points in three starts as Praha turned a 3-point lead into a comfortable 53-point advantage entering the last day of the season. Miller and right wing David Backes each chipped in over a dozen points in the final push.
“This is truly an amazing moment,” said Miller at the conclusion of Sunday’s action. “I’m so proud to be a part of the great Praha franchise.”
Asked if this helps alleviate the sting of losing to Canada at this year’s Olympics, Miller responded, “While there’s no substitute for a gold medal, there isn’t a hockey player in the world who hasn’t dreamt of raising the World Hockey League trophy since he was a kid.”
While the Spartan goalies prospered, garnering a combined 28 points in crucial matchups on Tuesday and Saturday, Portland’s tandem of Tomas Vokoun and Jonathan Quick foundered. The duo produced only 17.5 points in 20 starts over the last month of the season, including a devastating -5 in the final week.
Praha’s championship team was most notably marked by two things: a seeming revolving door of player personnel and an unwillingness to back down in the face of adversity.
The Spartans signed and dressed more players than any other team in the WHL and were one of only two teams to reach the 60-acquisition limit. This has been a hallmark of Praha’s success: its 2008 championship team led the league with 117 acquisitions and even the imposition of movement limits hasn’t deterred General Manager Mark Edwards’ penchant for wheeling and dealing.
Though Praha had a strong draft, bringing in such season-long stalwarts as Miller, centers Anze Kopitar and Ryan Kesler and defenseman Drew Doughty, it was the talent Edwards brought in midseason that made the difference. The December acquisitions of Alex Ovechkin, who gave the Spartans 119 points in 29 games before being dealt to Stuttgart, and Nabokov, who stabilized the second goaltending spot after Steve Mason’s struggles, were especially critical for Praha, which faced a 92-point deficit on December 18.
Other key trades for Praha included bringing in Nicklas Lidstrom, who looked lost in Montreal but blossomed with 80 points in 42 games in Prague, and Bobby Ryan, who had 95 points in 44 games. Ryan, in turn, helped Edwards bring in goaltender Chris Mason, who struggled early, but finished strong, providing a crucial 51 points in just 13 starts while in Prague.
After slowly chipping away at Portland’s 92-point cushion, bringing it down to 46 on Feb. 7, the Spartans had perhaps their most important stretch of the season, posting 116 points in four days to take a 22-point lead. Though the Pints came back to take a slim lead into the Olympic break, it was back and forth from that point on. Even when Portland went up by 40 with three weeks to go, it took only four days for Praha to come back.
“On behalf of the entire Pints organization, I would like to extend my congratulations to Mark Edwards and the Spartans,” said Portland General Manager Colin Smith. “Mark has shown once again why he is the premier front office man in the league, even if he is a rat bastard. Clearly we still have some work to do to bring a championship to Portland, but Pints fans can take some solace in knowing that Edwards is still a lousy chess player.”
Though Praha’s championship came at a price—Edwards had to relinquish his first-round pick in this year’s draft to bring in Nabokov—the Spartans have a bevy of exceptional keeper options and extra picks in the second and third rounds. Vegas will be hard-pressed not to have them as the early favorites for the 2011 title as well.