Jakub Kovář was facing the biggest challenge of his young career in the beginning of the season when he suddenly found himself as the starting goalie for České Budějovice.
In a somewhat surprising move, the previous starter, club legend and NHL veteran goalie Roman Turek, 40, announced his retirement during training camp. Turek had been battling with injuries all summer, so retiring was to be expected at some point. Just not this soon.
The team management was put in a tough spot as the player market in September wasn’t what it was in the summer. Because of that – or despite that – the management chose to make a bold move and not make a move at all to fill the void the gigantic fan favorite had left behind. Turek’s 22 year old backup, Kovář, was named the starter and 19 year old Šimon Hrubec was named the backup.
Kovář was in the process of being brought up as the team’s future starter and the plan was to play him about as much as Turek this season. When that plan of a 1A-1B combo never materialized, Kovář was named the undisputable starter.
The expectations followed the new role and it certainly didn’t help the mental side to know what kind of a gap there was to fill when the fans were still mourning the retirement of Turek.
There were also questions in the air about Kovář’s durability. Not just because he had started only 17 games last season, but because of his history with chronic knee problems.
Could the inexperienced, injury prone kid be trusted as a starter, especially when Turek’s aura was still hanging over the Budějovice net?
Kovář answered with his play. His numbers have been hovering around the top 5 in every major category right from the start. His steady play has been an answer to the questions about his ability while the fact that he has started every single game for his team from September to January has been an answer to the questions about his durability. The fans have almost forgotten about Turek by now, voting Kovář player of the month twice in a row, making him the MVP of his team after the first half of the season. Right now the biggest question might be could Kovář start every game in the season?
It doesn't seem impossible when 39 games are played of the total of 52.
Kovář recorded his 3rd shutout of the season – 4th of his career – last game, against Liberec. It wasn’t the amount of shots, but the quality of them that made the game difficult for Kovář.
"It was tough. Maybe they didn’t shoot as much than in some of the previous games, but they were unpredictable."
"They were just waiting for our mistakes. Fortunately we didn’t make many."
Final score 4-0 didn’t leave much unclear.
"Eventually they couldn’t even score that one goal and after our third goal the game was over."
Kovář thinks the team in front of him is doing a great job on defense, helping his job. It’s an improvement since it hasn’t been the case all year. The season started well, but the team went through a rough stretch in November-December.
"It was scary how many goals we allowed in November and early December", Kovář recalls. "I don’t know if we somehow changed our style of play unconsciously, but we paid attention to it and corrected that. The guys realized that they must come back to help the defense more often and now we can see the results."
Kovář says adjusting to the starter position hasn’t been as big of an issue mentally as it has been physically.
"Dealing with the mental side is easier than battling with the fatigue. You don’t have as much time to train when you play all the time. You just try to keep yourself sharp."
Kovář recorded 53 saves plus another two in a flawless shootout in a game against Karlovy Vary before going on to blank Liberec. For someone playing as much as Kovář, it wasn’t easy in the end.
"I’ve been playing since September, so I have to admit I really had enough in that game. You start to feel the hardest shots towards the end of the game, so it was awful. I’m just glad I survived it. (laughs) I’m tired, but I just have to battle through it. I’ll do it as long as we keep winning."
To make the battle even harder, Kovář admits he’s been having another battle – with the flu – for about a week. Stealing a game in the shootout after 53 saves and following that with a shutout isn’t a bad feat by the flu-ridden workhorse.
"I’ve been fighting with the flu for about a week now and had some fever too, so it felt extra nice to just get an end to that game and just head to bed right away after the game."
Words of a man who was considered a question mark a few months ago and now is a goalie who hasn’t been a backup since February.
This report was based off of a Czech-language story released by České Budějovice.