It’s not a bad wee party now, right enough.
The Elite League Playoff Finals weekend is almost unique in UK sport, as fans from all eleven Elite League teams and beyond gather in Nottingham to reminisce over, debate and celebrate the past seven months of EIHL action, reaffirming old friendships and making new ones all while taking in a Frozen Four style knockout tournament to decide the 2019 Playoff Champions.
The carnival atmosphere off the ice is as good-natured as you will find in sports fandom. From Saturday morning (or Friday afternoon, if you want the full playoff experience), everywhere you look in Nottingham is filled with hockey jerseys, as the town centre is taken over by hockey fans.
You could end up chatting with anyone about town; I’ve had people I’ve never met from Coventry, Cardiff, take your pick, wishing me luck for a game that day just because I was wearing a Giants jersey. As much as everyone in attendance is passionate about their own team, the rivalries are set aside as the UK hockey family gather to celebrate the sport that unites them.
Paul Balm of The Cat’s Whiskers fame has written an excellent preview of many of your off ice options for the weekend, and the answer to his question is, I would; I will be ready for a Berginator at some point. It is ridiculous. You should try one.
But you can read about that over there. I’m here for the hockey.
There is still plenty of sporting tribalism on show when the teams hit the ice to battle for the 2019 Playoff Championship, with eleven blocks of fans creating ad-hoc alliances depending on their own team’s history with whoever happens to be gracing the ice. Semi-final Saturday usually combines the on-ice competition with the off-ice revelry, as chants go back and forth between opposing fan bases. Sometimes they might even relate to the game.
The idea of being “on loan” to another team, a practice prevalent at the playoffs, is a step too far for me, but there is usually enough enmity built up over the season to dislike one team in each game less than the other if you are watching as a neutral. I was willing the Panthers to beat the Steelers last year after our season long rivalry with Sheffield. It was weird.
That’s more if your team did not make it though. The disappointment of not being able to win the trophy will have lessened and you can just enjoy the hockey, the atmosphere and the party.
If your team is there it can become a stressful few days. Whatever you might think of the length or format of the competition, if you get there you might as well win the thing. So Friday you spend catching up with everybody to take your mind off it. Then the nerves kick in on Saturday. Lose, and it hurts right through Sunday. Win and you enjoy it, but the nerves creep back on Sunday morning, mixing the excitement of being in the final and the chance to win that last game, with the fear that… Well, someone has to lose, but let’s not talk about that.
So hockey then. Here is how the semi-finals of the 2019 Elite League Playoffs shape up.
1pm, Semi-Final One: Belfast Giants (1) vs. Guildford Flames (5)
The first semi-final sees the Belfast Giants trying to complete an unprecedented Gra– Sl– of domestic trophies in the conference era, having already claimed the Challenge Cup, the Erhardt conference, and the Elite League championship. They brushed aside the Coventry Blaze 12-2 in their quarter-final match-up to take their place in the final four.
The first team standing in their way will be their opponents from that Challenge Cup Final, the Guildford Flames, who overcame a 3-2 deficit in their quarter-final first leg by shutting out the Glasgow Clan in their own barn on Sunday, qualifying for Nottingham with a 7-3 aggregate scoreline.
Head to Head
10/10/18: Belfast Giants 3 -2 Guildford Flames
21/10/18: Guildford Flames 3 – 2 Belfast Giants
25/11/18: Guildford Flames 1 – 4 Belfast Giants
08/12/18: Guildford Flames 1 – 3 Belfast Giants
08/02/19: Belfast Giants 3 -2 Guildford Flames (OT)
09/02/19: Belfast Giants 7 -2 Guildford Flames
Challenge Cup Final
10/03/19: Belfast Giants 2 -1 Guildford Flames (OT)
The closeness of the league series between Belfast and Guildford continued into the Challenge Cup final, with Patrick Dwyer and Jamie Crooks exchanging snipes before Jordan Smotherman stepped up nine minutes and thirty seconds into the first period of overtime to start a Giant party in Cardiff. Despite the Giants having more depth in their line-up the Flames forced a great performance from the Giants, and had Tyler Beskorowany not made some key saves from Ben Davies and Evan Janssen in overtime Guildford could have easily lifted the trophy themselves.
Giants Style of Play
A controlled rush will see the defenceman make a short pass to the wing on the half wall, who will try to cut to the middle of the ice with forward passing options to either side. If that route is cut off, as with Dwyer’s swing here, the winger will either look to make a pass to the weak side winger, or move up ice themselves, with close puck support for short passes between the forwards (1):
Once the Giants have gained the blueline their game is about out-working their opponents in the offensive zone, creating board battles as they would in the defensive zone and building pressure on the opposition’s defence. Having four speedy skating lines allows the Giants to play a high tempo energy style, whether you play on the 1st line or the 4th line:
Defensively, the Giants will cycle back into a 2-3 press against the rush, with the high forward moving back to join his defence on the blueline:
Giants Key Players
I have already written about Patrick Dwyer, Darcy Murphy and Kyle Baun as three of the Giants’ best offensive players, and they continued their form through the games against Coventry. Murphy passed the 50 goal mark with a goal to add to his 3 assists over the weekend, Baun contributed three assists, and Dwyer added another 2 assists.
In my Cup final piece I mentioned Kevin Raine as standing out to me as the player to keep Kruise Reddick quiet, and so he did. Reddick was kept off the score sheet with Raine and his defence partner Kendall McFaull taking the bulk of the minutes against Guildford’s top line. I would expect Coach Adam Keefe to deploy this line in similar fashion to combat Reddick’s speed and skill, with the added advantage of Belfast having the last line change due to their higher seeding.
Raine Gretzky is also something of a hot hand at the moment, currently enjoying a 4 game point streak and being credited with 4 assists so far in this year’s playoffs.
Underrated Clutch Player
The storybook ending for this year’s Giants would be a game winning goal from retiring British Ice Hockey legend Colin Shields. He is still well capable of this, but I think the clutch goal could come from Jordan Smotherman. He has been a revelation in Belfast since arriving from the DEL’s Iserlohn Roosters in February. The obvious goal is the overtime winner in the cup final, but he has scored in key moments for the Giants and has 4 goals and an assist already this post-season. Smotherman is likely to be involved if the Giants are to be victorious come Sunday.
Belfast Giants Depth Chart
Murphy – Dwyer – Riley
Smotherman – Johner – Baun
Higgins – Ferland – Shields
Hook – Boxill
Leonard – Roach
McFaull – Raine
Garside – Vandermeer
*Rutherford and Gelinas have missed both playoff games as extra imports.
Flames Style of Play
The Flames are renowned for their top line but they have firepower throughout the squad. The wingers on the top line spread to the boards on the rush giving Guildford’s defence options to move the puck to their offensive players quickly. Kruise Reddick will be looking to generate speed through the middle, and once in the offensive zone all three can make plays and put the puck in the net.
The second line will send a player up the weak side of the ice to stretch the play, as the other two forwards present closer options, with the defence again trying to make a quick pass up ice:
If you watch the Challenge Cup Final, Ben Davies, as in the above clip, is one of the players who created chances this way in overtime to almost steal the cup for Guildford.
Flames Key Players
John Dunbar can take a game and break it with his dynamic offense. He is often the catalyst for Guildford’s offence, here generating two scoring chances for his teammates before finishing with a powerplay goal himself:
Calle Ackered has been relatively quiet on the scoreboard of late, but he needs less than a second to rip his shot through a goaltender and change a game, and he has 2 points so far in the playoffs. He plays the point on the powerplay, but the movement between himself and Kruise Reddick will give him opportunities to unleash his shot:
The Flames’ success could rest on who gets the starting nod from Coach Paul Dixon. If you go with the hot goaltender it will be Reece Fullerton. Since the Challenge Cup final the Flames’ two netminders have split their six league games and two playoff games equally, with Chris Carrozzi losing all four of his games and Fullerton winning all four of his, including the 5-0 shutout in Renfrew. Dixon may see something in training or have more trust in Carrozzi, but if both netminders are fit Fullerton has earned the chance to lead his team in Nottingham.
Underrated Clutch Player
Jamie Crooks scored Guildford’s goal in the Challenge Cup final, he scored the equalizer in the 2nd leg of their playoff quarter-final, and he has netted five times and added two assists in league play since that final. He leads the Flames in points during that time, and could step up and break Belfast hearts from his recent role on Guildford’s 2nd line.
Guildford Flames Depth Chart
Watters – Reddick – Dunbar
Crooks – Ferguson – Foster
Janssen – King – Davies
Krogh – Waller
Ackered – Craige
Baldwin – Lindhagen
Lundin – Abt
*Evan Ritt sat out the quarter-final playoff games as the extra import, with Jordan Abt returning to the Flames’ lineup after missing the previous Blaze, Panthers, and Stars games.
5pm, Semi-Final Two: Cardiff Devils (2) vs. Nottingham Panthers (3)
The second game of the day will pit the 2nd seed Cardiff Devils against the hometown Nottingham Panthers. The Devils overcame any potential league hangovers to beat the Sheffield Steelers 11-8 on aggregate over two hard-fought quarter-final games, while the Panthers defeated the Fife Flyers 6-3 to book their place at the finals.
Head to Head
15/09/18: Cardiff Devils 3 – 2 Nottingham Panthers
26/09/18: Nottingham Panthers 4 – 3 Cardiff Devils
04/11/18: Nottingham Panthers 3 – 2 Cardiff Devils
17/11/18: Cardiff Devils 3 – 2 Nottingham Panthers
13/01/19: Cardiff Devils 5 – 4 Nottingham Panthers
26/01/19: Nottingham Panthers 2 -1 Cardiff Devils
Devils Style of Play
The Devils like to be aggressive on the forecheck on offence and defense. The Devils use a 2-1-2 forecheck with one forward pressuring the puck quickly followed by another, looking to limit their opponents’ time and space on the puck. If they can’t win the puck, the forwards will work back into a 2-3 check in the neutral zone.
If they do win the puck on the boards, they will cycle down low to try to create an opportunity, but they are quick to move the puck to the blueline for a shot through traffic:
Devils to Watch
Joey Martin took Cardiff’s second leg against the Steelers by the scruff of the neck, scoring a hat-trick on his way to leading Cardiff to the finals points. He is simply one of the best all around players to have played in the Elite League, and stopping Martin goes a long way towards disrupting Cardiff’s play.
Gleason Fournier has had one of the best offensive seasons the Elite League has seen from a defenceman. Once he starts skating with the puck it is extremely hard to take it off him, and he can draw in defenders to open up space for the rest of his team. Fournier has also perfected the timing of skating onto point shots created by the Devils cycle.
Underrated Clutch Player
Layne Ulmer scored the game winner on Sunday, and he has a habit of appearing in the slot free from any defensive attention to snipe pucks home at timely moments in a game. Teams must keep an eye on him at all times when he is in the offensive zone, as if the top lines are being shut down he can step up and tilt the ice Cardiff’s way.
Cardiff Devils Depth Chart
Bentivoglio – Martin – Hedden
Linglet – Dixon – Pope
Duggan – Ulmer – Livingston
Batch – Myers – Morissette
Fournier – Richardson
Schiestel – Reddick
Mosey – Louis
*Haddad has missed out on both playoff games so far.
Panthers Style of Play
The Panthers often seem to breakout with a close passing option from the first defenceman to either one winger or the swinging centre, with the other winger moving close to or onto the opposition’s blueline to be available for a stretch pass:
If the first defenceman is unable to make a play, he will make a quick D-D pass to change the angle and try another play up ice.
Once in the zone the Panthers like to get into a cycle to create offence. When they move the puck back to the blueline for a shot, they will try to get two forwards crashing the net to look for rebounds.
The 1st unit of Nottingham’s powerplay looks to set up in a 1-3-1 formation. The 2nd unit can set up in a 2-1-2 formation, with two men either side of the net and Chris Stewart often being the man playing the centre role:
Defensively, the Panthers typically send one forechecker into the offensive zone at a time, with a second forechecker rotating with the first forward. They will press if they can, but if the forecheck is unsuccessful they will rotate back into a 1-2-2 defensive set-up, which continues through the neutral zone:
Panthers to Watch
Chris Stewart played in 652 games for six different clubs during his NHL career. He tends to float around the action and pop up where he is needed in a similar fashion to former Giant Jeffrey Szwez. He has a goal and two assists already in this year’s playoffs, and will trouble teams from the blue paint. Cam Janssen set the tone for the Panthers with a big hit in the first minute of their last playoff final appearance in 2016, and Chris Stewart has the pedigree to have a similar impact for the Panthers this weekend.
Alex Guptill has been the Panther’s top scorer this year, and lies 4th in league scoring with 34 goals. He has been cold of late with only 5 points in his last 10 league games, and he only has one assist so far in the playoffs, but give him space and he can find the good whiskey top shelf in an instant. If he is going to the net front early on Saturday, he could be in line for a big weekend.
Luke Pither has been on excellent scoring form in his last 10 league games, and will likely have an impact if the Panthers are to succeed in Nottingham.
Underrated Clutch Player
Dylan Richard could be the secret weapon for the Panthers. He accumulated 19 points in 37 league games for the Panthers, scoring 8 goals, but he already has 3 goals over his two playoff games so far.
Panthers Depth Chart
Guptill – Bolduc – Pither
Richard – Hurtubise – Rheault
Farmer – Perlini – Stewart
Henderson – Lachowicz – Betteridge
Lepine – Billingsley
Rissling – Olsen
Tetlow – Hughes
*Steve Lee unavailable through injury, last played 24th March vs. Fife. Kovacs has missed both playoff games so far.
So who will win it all? Looking at this question objectively, and I’m sure that I will be accused of having teal blinkers on, but honestly both head and heart say the Belfast Giants have the team and the motivation to complete a historic Gra– Sl– this year. The Giants have the quality and depth to beat anybody in the league, they went 8-2 in their last ten league games, and by hammering the Blaze they have shown that they are still hungry to win more.
The Flames will use the unexpected chance of revenge for the Challenge Cup loss as motivation on Saturday, the Panthers will be desperate to win on home ice to atone for their season, and you don’t need me to tell you how the Devils will feel if they get to face the Giants in the final. All that said, the Giants of 2018/19 are a special team, and I think they can find a way past whichever of the three teams they need to on their way to their fourth trophy of the season.
The Elite League Playoff finals weekend is a fantastic event, and I would heartily recommend it to anyone who is a sports fan so they can get an idea of what hockey in the UK is all about. The level of play in the Elite League this year suggests the two games on Saturday will be exciting games, and the final on Sunday should be a great spectacle.
Whether you will be in attendance over the weekend, watching from home on Freesports, or just following along on social media, have a great playoff weekend, and enjoy this season’s final run.
(1): All highlight clips sourced from the Belfast Giants and provided by Giants Live TV