National Selection

Team GB coach Pete Russell has today released the 25-man squad who will venture into the top tier of the IIHF World Championships in eighteen days time, taking place in Slovakia from 10th – 26th May. As always there are a number of talking points which have split fans over who should and should not have made the final group, with both the selection of “imports” and the omission of certain players being up for debate.

The name missing from the roster being talked about as deserving of a spot is the Manchester Storm’s Ciaran Long. Long had a good season personally despite Manchester’s failure to qualify for the post season, ending the year 18th in league scoring and being named as the Elite League’s British Player of the Year.

“Defence wins championships” is an oft-quoted trope in sports, and when it comes to international hockey, teams are well-drilled on defence and games are typically much tighter affairs. In light of that, I took a look at Long’s scoring this season against each team in the league to see if there are any trends that might help point to his exclusion.

The top two teams this year, the League Champion Belfast Giants and second place Cardiff Devils, were also far and away the best defensive teams both to the eye and statistically, conceding 147 and 146 goals during the campaign respectively. When playing against the Devils, Long struggled to make any headway for his team, only scoring one goal in their six games against each other. Through five games against the Giants, Long fared slightly better with two goals and an assist. He added a further goal and assist in the last game against each other, where the Giants struggled under the continuing pressure of their title chase, to improve to five points in six games.

The third best defensive team this year were the Guildford Flames, against who Long scored just three points over six games. By contrast, Long enjoyed playing the Nottingham Panthers, scoring seven times and assisting twice through a total of ten league and challenge cup games, finishing just under a point per game versus Nottingham. He gathered seven points in eight games against the Steelers, and was mostly a point per game player against the lower teams in the league, also amassing ten points against both the Blaze and the Lightning.

When it comes to some of his teams’ clutch games, Long did not contribute as often. Despite scoring heavily against the Panthers, he brought one assist in the first leg of the Challenge Cup Quarter-Final, as the Panthers blew away the Storm 6-1, and he only added one assist in the last three games of the season when the Storm were chasing a playoff spot. Long has been fairly successful at Elite League level this year despite playing for the ninth placed team, but the lack of scoring against the Devils’ defence in particular might hurt his ability in Coach Russell’s eyes to make as much of an impact when it comes to the international stage.

This is all without looking at games of course, which is where Team GB’s coaches could have seen something in his game to play him further down the line-up, replacing one of the other third or fourth line options at their disposal. A rumoured injury has held Long out of Team GB’s warm-up games, but there is a body of work that the coaches could watch on top of their own experience playing against him to get a more rounded look at his play.

However Russell, Adam Keefe and Corey Neilson are clearly happy with the defensive side of the usual suspects they have selected in that regard. A hockey team has to balance the scoring and defensive sides of the game, and with Ben Lake, Joey Lewis and his own teammate Mike Hammond all being scorers, alongside Rob Dowd and Liam Kirk’s continuing development with the Peterborough Petes, Long may just have been the odd man out when it came to the balance of the team.

There is a debate to be had about players coming in and taking “home-grown” player slots which Long may have suffered from, but management has one job, to pick the best team they can muster from the eligible players available to compete against teams that this year are far ahead of Team GB on expected performance and development. Both Hammond and Lake were near the top of the scoring charts in the Elite League this year and deserve their place in the squad on merit ahead of Long. If they qualify to play for the national team they are Team GB players and have as much right to be chosen as anyone else who qualifies for selection.

In reality, beating the likes of Canada and U.S.A. is a pipe dream, despite both Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby already running scared of Team GB. Russell should be picking a team with an eye on matching up with Denmark, France, and maybe Slovakia at a stretch. Wins against any of these teams may be enough to stave off relegation by finishing above the bottom two places overall in the tournament, and the management team must give themselves the best chance they can to attain that goal.

Pete Russell’s problem this year has been having an abundance of players available who can claim a legitimate stake on a place in the squad, and Ciaran Long should be part of that conversation. It hasn’t always been that way, and the disappointment is certain to have been heightened this year for anyone who won’t get a crack at competing against some of the world’s best players. Russell has to look beyond that and put a squad together that he feels has a chance to stay at the top table.

The Team GB management team have won two gold medals in the past two years. If you are a Team GB fan, trust that they know what they are doing.

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The 2019 EIHL Playoff Finals

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
Swindlehurst
*Gelinas

Beskorowany
Murphy
Dickson

*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
Ritt*

Ackered – Craige
Baldwin – Lindhagen
Lundin – Abt

Carrozzi/Fullerton
Mike Will

*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
*Haddad

Fournier – Richardson
Schiestel – Reddick
Mosey – Louis

Bowns
Murdy

*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
Hazeldine

Munson
Garnett
Gospel

*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

2019 EIHL Playoffs

They are nearly an afterthought in all of this.

As soon as they start, they are almost over.

Playoff beards, I mean.

The end of season playoffs in the UK do not allow time for much more than a five o’clock shadow. Some people cheat and hold off from shaving before the end of the regular season, but that is sacrilege to the more superstitious hockey fan. One last trim after the final league game gives maximum legitimate growth and will not anger the hockey gods, which is important when you only have a maximum of four games and you need all the puck luck you can get.

Because as good as your team might be, this is the playoffs, and anything can happen.

The 2019 Elite League Playoffs begin with the quarter-finals playing out over two legs this Saturday and Sunday, before the winners head to the Playoff Finals weekend being held over 13th – 14th April in Nottingham. The 2018/19 Elite League champion Belfast Giants will look to skate past the Coventry Blaze, the Cardiff Devils face the Sheffield Steelers, the Nottingham Panthers battle the Fife Flyers and the Glasgow Clan take on the Guildford Flames. Without further ado, let’s take a look at the match-ups.

Glasgow Clan (4) vs. Guildford Flames (5)

Head to Head
23/09/18: Flames 2 – 0 Clan
24/11/18: Clan 0 – 3 Flames
27/01/19: Clan 2 – 3 Flames (OT)
24/02/19: Flames 4 – 2 Clan
02/03/19: Clan 5 – 3 Flames
03/03/19: Flames 2 – 1 Clan (OT)

Benoit Doucet has troubled the Flames more than any other Glasgow skater during the regular season, scoring four times, however no other Clan forwards have scored more than one goal against the Flames. Scott Pitt has four assists in these games, with Brendan Connolly assisting three times and Doucet twice.

Ian Watters and Calle Ackered have been the Clan’s tormentors, scoring four and three goals respectively. The usual suspects lead the assists column, with Kruise Reddick having five and John Dunbar four assists against the Clan. TJ Foster is tied with Dunbar on four assists.

League Form

Glasgow have had a bad run of form heading into the playoffs, winning only two of their last ten games. To give the Clan’s fans some hope, one of these wins was against Guildford at the start of March, when they split a double-header with the Flames.

The Flames come into the playoffs having split their last ten league games evenly with five wins and five losses, holding a 5-3-2 record. In that time they also appeared in the Challenge Cup Final, losing a thrilling contest to Belfast 2-1 in overtime.

Players to Watch

With Glasgow’s run of form, no one player is producing points regularly coming into the playoffs. They will also be missing Brendan Connolly, who sustained an injury in a knee-on-knee collision with the Fife Flyers’ Brett Bulmer last weekend. The Clan will need a full three-line performance to progress past the Flames, unless someone can break out of the current malaise and put the team on their shoulders.

The Flames’ top line is well-known across the league, with the five man unit of Ackered, Craige, Reddick, Dunbar and Watters continuing to get much of the headlines, but Guildford’s opponents have seen in recent weeks that the Flames do have three scoring lines they can roll out against the Clan.

Jamie Crooks has hit a rich vein of goalscoring for the Flames of late, netting six goals alongside three assists for nine points in his last ten games. Both Reddick and Watters have eight points in that time, but TJ Foster can also cause the Clan problems, earning eight points from the second line.

Prediction: Guildford Flames

As the Belfast Giants’ players continue to quote that losing the Continental Cup has been a driving factor for their subsequent success, so Guildford will be hungry for silverware after losing the Challenge Cup Final in overtime to the Giants. Combine that with Glasgow being short-benched and on a poor run of form, and I see Guildford being the favourites to progress from this tie.

Nottingham Panthers (3) vs. Fife Flyers (6)

Head to Head
20/10/18: Flyers 7 – 5 Panthers
18/11/18: Panthers 3 -2 Flyers (SO)
05/01/19: Panthers 2 – 6 Flyers
20/01/19: Flyers 2 – 3 Panthers (SO)
03/03/19: Panthers 4 -3 Flyers (OT)
24/03/19: Flyers 4- 3 Panthers (OT)

Luke Pither was the highest scoring Panther in their games against Fife this season with three goals and four assists. Rob Farmer and Jon Rheault both added five points across the series.

Brett Bulmer has been a point per game player this season, scoring 57 points in 57 games, and he continued this consistency in the six games between the two clubs by collecting one goal and six assists. Paul Crowder has been the best Flyer against the Panthers, scoring five goals and helping on five others, with Carlo Finucci contributing eight points.

League Form

The Panthers have been inconsistent coming into this playoff season with five wins and five losses in their last ten games, including splitting two contests with Fife in that time.

The Flyers have also won five games and lost five during the run-in. They did beat the Panthers in March, although going back to their eleventh game would add a further loss to Nottingham.

Players to watch

Luke Pither is the Panther in form, with six goals and eight assists in his last ten games. Rob Farmer has nine points in that time, with Jon Rheault stepping up with seven. Chris Stewart has six points, but his pedigree as a recent NHLer could come to the fore in the playoff atmosphere he may be more familiar with.

Conversely, Alex Guptill has been a point per game player throughout the season and can be dangerous, but the Panthers will need more from the forward than he is showing; he has posted four goals and one assist since the end of February.

Much will rest on how Patrick Munson handles being designated as the starting goaltender by head coach Rick Strachan. He has impressed in his starts so far, with a 2.12 goals against average and a .932 save percentage through thirteen games. If he plays to this standard over the weekend, he could win the goaltending duel with Fife’s Shane Owen and give the Panthers a great chance of progressing.

The Flyers’ 2019 playoff run could be defined by the skaters who do not ice. Brett Bulmer would have been important in unlocking the Panthers defence, but after the collision with Connolly the Department of Player Safety handed Bulmer a three game ban, ruling him out of the quarter-final tie. Paul Crowder would have been an important cog, but he may miss the next two weekends through injury. Fife’s depth scorers have been stepping up for the team, with Joe Basaraba and Marcus Basara both scoring four goals and assisting on seven others in the run-in. Evan Bloodoff has chipped in with four goals and four assists.

On defence, Scott Aarssen is also on the treatment table, having been out of action since 23rd March. Evan Stoflet returned from injury on 30th March against the Clan after missing fifteen games of his own, but is a game time decision. Since his fight with Harrison Ruopp following the game on 10th February against the Manchester Storm, the Flyers have rarely been able to register six defencemen, dropping to four recognised defenders on occasion. Rick Pinkston has taken on the mantle of the Flyers’ offensive defenceman, scoring one goal and adding six helpers.

Prediction: Nottingham Panthers

Coach Todd Dutiaume will be handcuffed by the players he can field in this quarter-final. A fully fit Fife team would have had a good chance against Nottingham since the teams split the regular season series, but with possibly as many as five imports missing through injury and suspension, the Flyers face an uphill battle over two legs. Reece Cochrane has filled in for the Flyers on defence when he has been available through his two-way deal with the Kircaldy Kestrels, but if either Aarssen and/or Stoflet are unavailable, look to an aggressive forecheck from the Panthers to wear down the weakened Flyers defence over and above the normal playoff intensity.

It would be an impressive feat if Fife can qualify for the playoff finals weekend, but I think the Panthers will get past the Flyers to join the party in their home rink for the Finals.

Cardiff Devils (2) vs. Sheffield Steelers (7)

Head to Head
23/09/18: Steelers 6 – 2 Devils
20/10/18: Devils 7 – 1 Steelers
23/01/19: Steelers 2 -3 Devils
03/02/19: Devils 7 – 3 Steelers
03/03/19: Devils 6 – 0 Steelers
16/03/19: Steelers 5 – 4 Devils

Cardiff have outscored Sheffield heavily in the games between the two teams, 29-17. Gleason Fournier has enjoyed playing the Steelers, amassing three goals and eight assists. Charles Linglet has eleven points, with Joey Martin and Mike Hedden both contributing ten points.

Jonathan Phillips likes scoring against the Devils, potting three goals in these games out of his thirteen total goals on the season. Evan McGrath is the only other player who has scored consistently with five points. Anthony DeLuca also has five points, but they all came in the last game in Sheffield.

League Form

Cardiff have been battling Belfast for the Elite League title for most of the season, and it shows in the league table with both teams winning eleven more games than their nearest rivals. The Devils 7-3 record in the last ten games attests to that, as only the Giants can better that record. Cardiff holds a win over the Steelers in that time.

Sheffield hold a 6-4 record in their last ten, during which they have beaten both Cardiff and Belfast.

Players to Watch

Gleason Fournier has had a fantastic offensive season, finishing seventeen points ahead of Josh Roach on 71 points, however Mark Richardson has been the more productive defenseman lately with nine points to Fournier’s seven. Fournier does have four goals in the last ten games, and can turn a game when stepping up from the blueline for a shot off Cardiff’s cycle.

Offensively Cardiff’s points production of late has been skewed by blowouts against the Steelers and the MK Lightning, but Charles Linglet is the third highest league points scorer this season, and has been showing off his set-up magic with twelve of his latest fifteen points being assists. Joey Martin is playing well and is capable of breaking a game, while Mike Hedden is in strong form going into the weekend contributing twelve points in the past month.

Robert Dowd is scoring goals for Sheffield netting five in recent games, and Evan McGrath is working hard to set up his teammates with eight assists. Ben O’Connor joins Dowd as another talisman on the Steelers’ back end, and his performance defensively could be key to giving the Steelers a chance to qualify. Mark Matheson will still be watching from behind the bench as he recovers from a broken foot.

Prediction: Cardiff Devils

If the Devils had not won so many trophies in the past few years, I could see losing the league title affecting them negatively. However, Todd Kelman and Coach Andrew Lord have forged a winning mentality at the club, with many of the current squad playing a part in their success, and they will be angry at not winning any silverware yet.

The Steelers will need a tight defensive performance to progress since they have failed to trouble the game sheets as often as their rivals, with Evan McGrath their top scorer lying only 32nd in overall league scoring. This is the series where I can see an upset if the right Steelers team shows up, but I think the Devils will use their pain to motivate them to push past Sheffield to the final four.

Belfast Giants (1) vs. Coventry Blaze (8)

Head to Head
07/10/18: Blaze 2 – 4 Giants
24/11/18: Blaze 1 – 2 Giants
02/02/19: Giants 6 – 5 Blaze
15/03/19: Giants 4 -1 Blaze
16/03/19: Giants 2 – 1 Blaze
27/03/19: Blaze 2 – 7 Giants

The Giants managed to sweep the regular season series against the Blaze this season. Coventry must be sick of the sight of Patrick Dwyer by now, who has scored seven goals and added four assists against the Blaze. Kyle Baun has worked well with Dwyer, tallying seven points, while Darcy Murphy has also enjoyed playing Coventry with four goals and five assists in the six game series.

For the Blaze, Ben Lake has been a point per game player when facing the Giants with three goals and three assists. Shawn Pauly and Alex Nikiforuk have backed up Lake with five and four points respectively.

League Form 

The Giants are the form team heading into the playoffs, having finally overtaken the Devils on the last day of the season to become Elite League champions. They needed an 8-2 run-in to clinch the Elite League trophy, also adding the Erhardt Conference title and retaining the Challenge Cup in a remarkable month for the club.

The Blaze ended Cardiff’s league aspirations last Sunday, beating the title contenders 3-1 to hand the trophy to Belfast. Coventry have been in decent form themselves with a recent 6-4 record, but despite playing well against Belfast in the St. Patrick’s weekend double-header the Giants have been the architect of three of those four losses.

Players to Watch

Patrick Dwyer missed twenty-two games in the league this season, yet still amassed 61 points for a 1.61 point per game average, alongside 13 points in ten Challenge Cup games. He can light up a game in short order, as he showed with his first half hat-trick against Coventry on 27th March. He collected 18 points in March, putting together eight goals and ten assists. If Dwyer continues this form into the playoffs he will be hard for the Blaze to contain.

Darcy Murphy is also in scintillating form, matching Dwyer with 18 points in March. He has eleven game winning goals in league play, and is a worthy winner of the league’s top points scorer accolade. Not to be outdone, Kyle Baun has had a superb month offensively with 17 points of his own.

Kevin Raine has been a fantastic defensive pick up for the Giants, and has now added an offensive edge to his game, currently enjoying a two game point streak. “Raine Gretzky” may leave the scoring to the forwards in the playoffs, likely being tasked with keeping Ben Lake off the score sheet through 120 minutes.

The Blaze must also try to solve Tyler Beskorowany, widely thought of as being the best netminder in the league, who holds the best goals against average at 2.25 per game and the top save percentage at .921, impressive numbers in what has been a high scoring league this year.

Matt Hackett broke hearts in Cardiff last weekend, and played well against the Giants in their St. Patrick’s weekend double-header. Coventry need a big performance from Hackett, who has improved behind a leaky Coventry defence who have not helped Hackett’s 3.39 GAA and .893 save percentage.

For the Blaze, Lake is scoring, as he has been for the entirety of the season holding the second highest points total in the league. He has twelve points in his last ten games, and for the Blaze to move past Belfast he will need to play a big part over the two legs. Pauly also has twelve points, with Tim Crowder contributing a point per game.

Nikiforuk looked good against the Giants on the 27th when trying to put the Blaze on his back in the third period despite the scoreline. He has nine points from ten going into Saturday’s first leg clash and could be a difference maker. One other threat who may not always be on the radar is Ross Venus, almost a point a game player at the moment with nine points.

From the blueline, Nicolai Bryhnisveen can trouble the Giants, scoring ten points recently.

Prediction: Belfast Giants

The Blaze will want to show that beating the Devils last Sunday was not a fluke by knocking Cardiff’s title rivals out of the playoffs, however the Giants have won every domestic trophy available so far this season and are extremely hungry to end the year with a Gra– Sl–. The Giants can buy Danny Stewart a beer for the Blaze’s performance last Sunday after this tie, but Belfast will not return that favour this weekend and should have the depth to overcome the Blaze to book their place in Nottingham.

The 2018/19 regular season has been memorable for both the title race and for the playoff qualification battle. Any team can beat anyone else on their day, and the playoffs magnify that intensity where one bad game can let an underdog into the semi-finals. My predictions would see a rematch of this year’s Challenge Cup Final between Belfast and Guildford in the first semi-final in Nottingham, with the Devils facing the Panthers in the second semi-final, a replay of the 2011 and 2012 playoff finals.

But anything can happen. It’s the playoffs.

Find A Way

It should have been over.

The Belfast Giants and the Cardiff Devils both went into this past weekend knowing that any loss could hand the 2018/19 Elite League trophy to their title nemesis across the Irish Sea.

In many other years the league table has been wrapped up by now, with fewer teams fighting to get into the playoffs this late into the season. The race to find a way into the top eight is either done and dusted with the league champions crowned, or there are a handful of games left that can affect the final playoff positions in the table.

Not so this year, as we are in the crucible of one of the tightest Elite League title races yet, combined with one of the most open playoff qualification battles the league has seen amongst a number of playoff contending teams.

The title and playoff races have been intertwined running into the final weeks of the season, with results simultaneously affecting both ends of the table as both the Giants and the Devils have run a gauntlet of teams vying for the last available post-season slots.

The Title Race

Belfast Giants Fixtures

08/03/19: Belfast Giants 5 – 4 Glasgow Clan
15/03/19: Belfast Giants 4 – 1 Coventry Blaze
16/03/19: Belfast Giants 2 – 1 Coventry Blaze
22/03/19: Manchester Storm 5 – 2 Belfast Giants
24/03/19: Belfast Giants 5 – 1 Sheffield Steelers

27/03/19: Coventry Blaze – Belfast Giants
29/03/19: Belfast Giants – Fife Flyers
30/03/19: Belfast Giants – Dundee Stars

Cardiff Devils Fixtures

07/03/19: Fife Flyers 2 – 4 Cardiff Devils
08/03/19: Cardiff Devils 2 – 0 Guildford Flames
16/03/19: Sheffield Steelers 5 – 4 Cardiff Devils
17/03/19: Cardiff Devils 2 – 0 Glasgow Clan
20/03/19: Glasgow Clan 2 – 4 Cardiff Devils
23/03/19: Cardiff Devils 4 – 0 Manchester Storm
24/03/19: Dundee Stars 3 – 1 Cardiff Devils

30/03/19: Cardiff Devils – MK Lightning
31/03/19: Coventry Blaze – Cardiff Devils

The Giants blinked first this past Friday night, losing 5-2 to the Manchester Storm in a frustrating night for the Giants against a Storm team who had won five and lost five of their last ten games. Resignation began to set in for the Giants’ fan base, with the feeling that the air brakes were finally being applied to the runaway rollercoaster that has been the tumultuous 2018/19 Elite League campaign.

Step up the Dundee Stars. Whilst the Giants were dispatching the Sheffield Steelers in Belfast to keep their title hopes alive on Sunday, the Devils had made the long trip from Cardiff to Dundee to face the Stars.

And they lost.

Dundee were always going to be a dangerous opponent on the night given Cardiff’s travel itinerary and the fact that a loss for Dundee would have all but ended their own chances of playoff qualification, but it was unexpected and has prolonged the title chase into the final week of the season.

The Giants head into Wednesday’s clash against the Coventry Blaze with their opponents needing three points from their three remaining games to be sure of knocking Dundee out of the running, and four points to guarantee finishing above the Storm. The Giants must find a way to win on Wednesday not only for their own title ambitions, but to try to ensure that Coventry’s last game against Cardiff is also meaningful for the Blaze.

If the Blaze are safely in a playoff position come Sunday the Devils may have an easier time of getting that last win. Coventry will want to beat Cardiff regardless of league position, and they will want to stay in playoff mode to be at their best for any potential quarter-final opponent, but the carrot of looking up at that last playoff spot would see Coventry giving everything, setting up a potential barn burner of a final league game to confirm both the champions and the playoff qualifiers.

The Giants’ title aspirations lie in tying the Devils on points and surpassing them on regulation wins, this being the first decider of league positions if two teams are tied on points. At present, the Devils have 37 regulation wins with the Giants on 36. The Giants need to find their way to two regulation wins to draw level with the Devils if Cardiff do lose one game in regulation.

The best scenario, whilst being an outside bet, is if the Giants can win their three remaining games in regulation, and Milton Keynes beat Cardiff, the Giants become champions on Saturday. Even if the Devils win their last game, they could not match the Giants on regulation wins.

For the Devils, it is simple; win two hockey games.

The Playoff Race

27/03/19
Coventry Blaze – Belfast Giants

29/03/19
Milton Keynes Lightning
v Manchester Storm

30/03/19
Belfast Giants
v Dundee Stars
Manchester Storm
v Coventry Blaze

31/03/19
Coventry Blaze v Cardiff Devils
Guildford Flames
v Dundee Stars

The Storm play the Milton Keynes Lightning on Friday night, the only team mathematically eliminated from the playoff picture, who are playing out their last games in the Elite League before joining the newly formed second tier National League. The Storm then skate into the Coventry Skydome for their massive clash with the Blaze on Saturday night. If Coventry have lost to Belfast, and the Storm manage to beat the Lightning, then a win for the Storm against the Blaze would qualify them for the post-season, with the Storm having 61 points to the Blaze’s 58.

If the Storm first beat the Lightning and then the Blaze in overtime after a Belfast win on Wednesday they will have also qualified, as they would have either 20 or 21 regulation wins depending on the Lightning result. Coventry would lose out even if they did beat Cardiff, as they could only tie the Storm on 61 points, but they could only have a maximum of 18 regulation wins. Milton Keynes beating Manchester on Friday would keep the race alive should the Storm then beat the Blaze, as then the Blaze could still leapfrog Manchester with a win over the Devils.

Dundee meet the Giants on Saturday and the Guildford Flames on Sunday in their last two games of the season. As it stands, Dundee must win both of these games to qualify for the playoffs. Losing to Belfast would end their chances of qualification, as either Coventry or Manchester will pass the 58 point threshold in their game on Saturday, and Dundee can only reach 58 points with one win. For Dundee to qualify, they must win their two games in regulation, the Storm must lose one game in regulation, and the Blaze can only win one of their three games in overtime. The second tie-breaker, overall wins, is also in Coventry’s favour with 25 wins to Dundee’s 22.

The 2018/19 Elite League has been exciting at both ends of the table, and at least one of the races must go to the last day of the season. The rollercoaster is coming to the end of it’s run, but there are still twists and turns to come before the train trundles back into the station and everyone can get off, shake the legs out and lower the heart rates.

Until the playoffs a week later, at least.

Whatever happens this weekend, both teams at the top of the league would make worthy champions. May the best team win.

But let’s find a way.

When The Blaze Come Skating In

“It’s a, It’s a, It’s a, It’s a goa…” Oh hey, didn’t see you there. I suppose we’d better get cracking. We’ve three more trophies to win.

The Belfast Giants will try to put out a second fire in less than a week on Friday and Saturday night, as they welcome the Coventry Blaze for a St. Patrick’s Day double-header in Belfast. The Blaze are battling to qualify for the end of season playoff tournament, whilst the Giants look to refocus on their league title campaign five days after claiming the 2019 Challenge Cup in a pulsating final in Cardiff.

The Playoff Race

The Blaze come into their weekend in Belfast sitting outside playoff qualification, currently level on 53 points with the Manchester Storm in ninth place. They hold two games in hand over Manchester, but two defeats in Belfast could give the Blaze a tough mountain to climb from their remaining six fixtures after Saturday night. They still have to play the Cardiff Devils and another game against the Giants, not to mention their games against playoff rivals the Fife Flyers, the Dundee Stars, and a game on the last weekend of the season against the Storm.

No one team is putting a run together to secure their place in the playoffs at the moment. Over the last ten games, the Blaze have won five and lost five, matching the Sheffield Steeler’s pace of 5-5 and bettering Manchester by two points, the Storm going 4-6 in that time. The Flyers also went 4-6 in their last ten games, with the Dundee Stars hitting a rough patch in only winning two of their last ten games. They are still only three points behind the Blaze and the Storm, but have a game in hand on the Manchester side.

Style of Play

The Blaze like to get the puck to the forwards quickly on the breakout. One breakout that the Blaze seem to use under pressure is for the right defenceman to make a pass to the forward on the right boards just before the blueline, who will then pass or tip the puck into the neutral zone for the other two forwards to skate on to at speed crossing into the offensive zone. If the Giants play their aggressive forechecking game this could be one the Blaze run with to break up that pressure. Ivan Puzic will also try to join the rush if the opportunity presents itself.

The powerplay tends to look to move to the right side of the ice on their zone entry, and set up in a 1-3-1 formation. From there, they like to make a pass from the half-wall to the weak side of the ice for a shot, either as they enter the zone or once they have set themselves up. If that is cut off they can move the puck around with Thom Flodqvist on the half-wall and Ben Lake moving to the strong side of the ice in front of the net as required to provide an option for the puck carrier. The top powerplay unit rounds out with Nicolai Bryhnisveen on the point, Tim Crowder waiting for the left circle shot, and Shawn Pauly in the high slot.

Defensively the Blaze will try to send two forecheckers into the zone to compete for the puck, but if there is no chance of gaining possession they will look to drop back into a wide 1-2-2 with the middle two forwards staying only slightly higher than the defencemen, positioned towards the boards, almost for a 1-4 look. The penalty kill looks for a 1-3 set-up, with one forward pressing up front and the other three players trying to hold the blueline.

The defence has been the major cause for concern for the Blaze this year, as they have conceded an average of 3.8 goals per game in the league, and it’s not hard to see why they are near the foot of the table when comparatively they score an average of 3.5 goals per game. Coventry have several defencemen who are willing to shoot the puck,  with Bryhnisveen and Chris Joyaux the healthy defencemen shooting when the opportunity presents itself.

The Blaze are currently undermanned on the blueline with the injury to Justin Hache, and have mostly gone with a five man rotation on defence in that time. If Hache is back for the double-header it will be a big boost for the team, otherwise they may be in for a long weekend against a typically aggressive Giants forecheck.

Danny Stewart seems to like moving players up and down the line-up, with Flodqvist the latest player to get a look on the top line alongside Nikiforuk and Lake in an effort to get more consistent chemistry. Kevin Morris joined Crowder and Shawn Pauly against the MK Lightning, and Morris has also moved elsewhere in other games with Ross Venus able to move up and take a shift on the second line.

Key Players

Ben Lake sits two points clear of Darcy Murphy in overall league points, with the two players sitting first and second in the scoring charts. Both have scored most of their points at even strength, with only fourteen and seventeen points coming on the powerplay respectively. It is difficult to take the puck away from Lake, and no matter how the Blaze are playing he can step up for a goal to change the momentum of the game.

Alex Nikiforuk plays mostly on the second line for the Blaze and has 64 points on the season, and Tim Crowder completes the Blaze’s set of three players in the top ten in league scoring with 63 points. Flodqvist is also a player in form, a skilful winger who seems to have created a dynamic option with Lake and Nikiforuk when moved there during the recent game against Milton Keynes. Goalscoring is not an issue for the Blaze, and they can light up a team on their night. On the back-end, Bryhnisveen will carry the offensive load for the team with Hache’s injury.

The Blaze have been short-handed for some time, with Jake Hansen sustaining an injury in Coventry’s game against Fife on 08th December, and Justin Hache being unavailable since 24th February, also injured against the Flyers.

Special Teams

The Blaze are struggling to get the 100% combined powerplay and penalty kill mark that many teams like to reach this season. Their powerplay is running at 16.73% on the campaign, with their penalty kill in last place at 70.83%, a full 7.27% behind the next team Dundee.

Depth Chart

Lake – Pauly – Crowder
Morris – Nikiforuk – Flodqvist
Venus – Lawrence – Ferrara
Florian – Forbes

Bryhnisveen – Joyaux
Puzic – Clements
Noble

Hackett
Hedley

The Title Race

The Giants currently sit four points behind the Cardiff Devils, and can ill afford any slip ups in their last seven games. The Devils have a tricky weekend travelling to playoff hopefuls Sheffield before returning home to face Guildford, who still have an outside chance of reaching third place and a potential European trip should Belfast or Cardiff win the playoff championship. Cardiff have three home and four away games left, and after this weekend still have to play the Glasgow Clan twice, who are trying to hang onto that insurance European spot. There are battles all over the league this year, and every game will have meaning running into the end of the season.

The Challenge Cup final saw the second game after returning from injury from Patrick Dwyer, and he showed his class by slotting in to the line-up like he hadn’t missed a day for the most part. Darcy Murphy was kept relatively quiet in the final, so he will be itching to get scoring again. He has already scored a coast-to-coast goal against the Blaze, so they will be wary of him, but the Blaze will be faced by a plethora of point-scoring, with Jordan Smotherman confirming the Giants’ depth on Sunday by scoring the Challenge Cup winning goal from the third line. If the Blaze bring five defencemen, the Giants will look to play a physical forechecking game to wear the Blaze down over the two nights.

The Challenge Cup trophy will be in the building, but the Giants can enjoy that win again at the end of the season. The Blaze will be playing playoff hockey this weekend. If the Giants are to catch Cardiff, they will have to overcome any Challenge Cup hangover and match Coventry’s intensity. Yet another two game series loaded with opportunity and peril.

We go again.

2019 Challenge Cup Final

It’s the Giant’s Causeway vs. Guildford Castle. Potato Bread vs. Maids of Honour. The Lagan vs. The River Wey. The Lyric vs. the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre. Yer Uncle Hugo vs. Tony Blackburn.

It’s fair to say, there is not a storied rivalry in this one.

The Belfast Giants travel to Cardiff this weekend to take on the Guildford Flames in Sunday’s first showpiece event of the domestic season, the 2019 Challenge Cup Final. The Giants qualified for the quarter-final stage as the top-seeded team from the group stage, which earned them the first choice of opponent in the draw for the last eight of the competition. They picked the Dundee Stars and dispatched them comfortably 12-2 over two legs, before going on to beat the Glasgow Clan 7-5 on aggregate to progress to the final.

Guildford are on the hunt for another arena team scalp, as their road to the final ran through both participants in “the biggest rivalry in Europe”. The fourth seeds were left with the Sheffield Steelers after the quarter-final draw, winning 9-8 before dumping the Nottingham Panthers out of the Challenge Cup with a 3-1 win in Nottingham, completing an 8-3 semi-final victory to book their place in Cardiff.

Hopefully those making the trip from Belfast shouldn’t need to emulate last year’s storybook narrative of fans flying to airports up and down Great Britain, travelling to a game that was in danger of not happening due to heavy snowfall. Both the team and the fans just about made it in time to win the 2018 final 6-3, slaying the hometown Cardiff Devils in their own rink to lift the trophy. The Giants return to Cardiff as defending Challenge Cup champions, attempting to retain the title against the Flames who are appearing in their first Elite League final since re-joining the top table of UK hockey in 2017.

Head to Head

The Giants have come out on top in all but one of the head to head match-ups with the Flames this season, that being the 3-2 loss in Guildford on 21st October. Every game has been close barring the 7-2 blowout in February, with three games going into the record books as 3-2 decisions.

In the six league games between the two teams, the scoring has been spread fairly evenly for the Giants. Darcy Murphy and Blair Riley lead Belfast’s goalscoring with three goals each, followed by Chris Higgins, David Rutherford and Jonathan Ferland all scoring twice. Rutherford and Kyle Baun have four assists each, with Riley, Murphy, Higgins and Jordan Smotherman all contributing three each. One player who pulls out his best saucer passes against Guildford is Tyler Beskorowany, who has two of his four league assists against the Flames.

Calle Ackered and Kruise Reddick have scored three goals each for the Flames, with John Dunbar netting two. Reddick also leads the way in assists for Guildford with four helpers, Ian Watters with three, and Dunbar two.

The Guildford Flames

Form

After the teams last met the Flames went on an impressive six game winning run in league play, beating both the Cardiff Devils and the Glasgow Clan in the process, whilst also ending Nottingham’s Challenge Cup dreams. They dropped one game against the Clan last Saturday, but won the return game in overtime for an impressive 8-1 record in all competitions since the Belfast double-header.

Style of Play

I covered the Flames for the double-header in Belfast earlier this season, and they have not changed their play considerably. The first line is still the same five man unit of Reddick, Dunbar and Watters up front, with Ackered and Jesse Craige manning the blueline. The two wings will still look to spread to the boards on their breakout to give Ackered and Craige passing options when they are on the puck, with Reddick swinging in the slot to skate the puck with speed up ice if he is given room. When they are on form they can light up a team in short order, and there is no question that they will be dangerous come the final.

The second line tries to breakout with two skating forwards grouped on one side of the ice for the defenceman to pass to, with a stretch pass available to the third forward on the weak side. This forward will look to move up ice as soon as the Flames regain possession of the puck to offer a breakaway option (1):


The Giants have done a good job of limiting the weak side pass here, but the movement of the other two forwards gives the defenceman the passing options to release the forwards at speed and create a scoring chance.

The Flames travelled to Belfast without Kevin King in their line-up in February, and his return to the active roster since the second leg of the semi-final against Nottingham has allowed Paul Dixon to spread his team’s offense through his second and third lines. King has recorded five points including that game against the Panthers, and he has linked well with Ben Davies and TJ Foster on the Flames’ revamped second line. Brett Ferguson has moved to centre Jamie Crooks and Great Britain U-20 starlet Joshua Waller on the third line, giving the Flames a balanced top nine who have all been contributing to the scoreboard in recent weeks

Key Players

Kruise Reddick is the best player in Guildford’s forward lines. Reddick will drive possession for the top line and the number one powerplay unit, he will hit and forecheck aggressively to win the puck, and he is not afraid to work around the crease to get his goals. The top line’s plus/minus figures still give cause for concern when you look at how many even strength points they each have, suggesting a possible defensive weakness, but the line is built for offense, and Reddick can put the team on his back and carry them to silverware if the Giants are unable to contain him.

Reddick is a key part of the Flames’ powerplay, and he can pop up in any position due to Guildford’s movement. The Flames will rotate from the 1-3-1 into an umbrella set-up if they are not creating quality chances:


A number of teams have suffered from this flexibility, including the Giants. This play in particular also shows Reddick’s willingness to play in and around the blue paint.

On the blueline, Calle Ackered is arguably the most dangerous defenseman in the league at both five-on-five play and on the powerplay. His point shot has caused the Giants problems already this season, as it did when he picked up a second assist from a goalmouth scramble for the Flames’ second goal during the Giants’ 3-2 home win in October. The Giants have seen his right face-off circle work several times; in October’s 3-2 loss in Guildford, Ackered’s first goal came when he skated into the slot from the right circle, and his second came after collecting a rebound from his own shot from that circle. Then again, in the second game of the February double-header in Belfast:

This might be five-on-three, but it does demonstrate the movement that the Flames can generate on their powerplay, with all five players capable of rotating and worrying the defence. You have to respect Ackered’s shot, but much like Alex Ovechkin with the Washington Capitals, the Giants cannot give Ackered too much attention as they would leave themselves open to Guildford working a four on three opportunity elsewhere on the ice.

The Guildford Flames have two good goaltenders, Chris Carrozzi and Travis Fullerton, and there is little to pick between them when it comes to who will take the net for Sunday’s clash. Carrozzi holds the better goals against average per game at 2.73 compared to 3.14 in nine more games played, but their save percentages are almost identical at .907 and .908 respectively. In the nine starts since the teams last played, Carrozzi has taken five starts to Fullerton’s four, and they split the home and home series with Renfrew last weekend. Carrozzi played in both Challenge Cup semi-final games against Nottingham, which may suggest that he is the favourite to get the start in Cardiff.

Depth Chart

Watters – Reddick – Dunbar
King – Foster – Davies
Crooks – Ferguson – Waller
Janssen – Ritt* – Krogh

Ackered – Craige
Baldwin – Lindhagen
Lundin – Abt

Carrozzi
Fullerton
Will

*Evan Ritt has not played since the 2nd February against the Sheffield Steelers.

The Belfast Giants

Form

On the night after the double-header with Guildford the Giants lost to Nottingham in overtime, but went on to win five games out of six before suffering defeats at the hands of Glasgow and Sheffield. They have been embroiled in a battle with the Cardiff Devils for the League Championship, winning two games during their recent good run of form against Andrew Lord’s side on their way to amassing a 6-2-1 record in all competitions since February’s tilt with the Flames.

Style of Play

The Giants are a fast, skilful puck possession team who will press their opponents all over the ice. They use short passes with close puck support to play their way through opposition defences, but also have skilled puckhandlers on forward and defence who can dangle around defenders. The fact that Lewis Hook is playing fourth line minutes shows the depth of talent that the club currently enjoys.

The Giants will look to start their breakout with a pass to the half-wall, where a winger can either skate up ice or look for another quick pass to the supporting centre or weak side winger. The Giants have options on the breakout if they can’t make the first pass (Cardiff were excellent at disrupting the Giants’ breakout in February), as they have a defenseman on each line who can carry the puck up ice in Josh Roach, Kevin Raine and Jim Vandermeer. The left wing forward often criss-crosses into the centre, and the three forwards enter the zone with speed backing their opponent’s defencemen into their zone:

If the rush is not successful, the Giants can create an effective cycle on the boards to open up secondary chances. The defencemen are free to pinch into the cycle as required, with the forwards ready to move back and cover the point to guard against any odd man rushes the pinch might allow:

If the cycle is broken up, the Giants will move the puck quickly back to the point for a D-D pass to reset the attack to the other side of the offensive zone.

Belfast’s powerplay will often try to set up on the left side of the ice, with a defenceman on the blueline, a playmaker on the half-wall, a forward behind the net, a net front presence and a weak side shooter:

Patrick Dwyer’s passing can unlock defences from the half-wall by itself, but there is an abundance of skill throughout the Giants line-up that have filled in during Dwyer’s absence, with David Rutherford comfortably playing that position. Kyle Baun and Chris Higgins will look to play on the goal line and either skate to find space, or try to make passes to the weak side of the ice for shots.

The Giants usually employ an aggressive 2-1-2 forecheck, though they will also use a high 1-2-2 zone press from the neutral zone at times with wingers looking to cut off breakout passes from behind the net. This might be one way to force Guildford’s top line into having to make adjustments during the game.

When defending the rush the Giants have been using a 2-3 neutral zone lock, with one defenseman ready to drop back to almost give a 1-3-1 look once the puck is crossing the blueline. In the defensive zone the pressure continues, with the weak side winger staying close to centre ice in the high slot or slightly to the strong side when the puck is on the boards to limit the amount of space available for the opposition.

The emphasis is on out-working the opponent on both the offensive and defensive sides of the puck. The Giants can maintain pressure on teams due to running four lines who are all fast skaters so that the opposition rarely get a chance to breathe when the Giants are at their dynamic best.

Key Players

Darcy Murphy. Darcy Dangles. The Belfast Giants number 15 has been on fire of late, topping the Elite League goals chart with 33 goals and sitting two points shy of the overall points lead in the league as well. He has also scored the most game winning goals in the league with 10 goals, three ahead of Mr Ackered. He is lightning quick, has the puckhandling skills to score coast to coast goals that can bring a crowd to their feet, and has a fantastic release on his shot. You will often see him on the inside of the face-off circle on offensive zone draws ready for a quick shot. If Murphy is at his best on Sunday, the Flames may find him unplayable.

Kevin Raine has been a rock defensively night in and night out since he returned to the Giants in October. He can carry the puck when needed, and his physical play and foot speed make it hard to get past him, as shown here, where he angles Kruise Reddick to the outside of the ice into the boards and separates the man from the puck:

I think that Raine is the defenceman on the Giant’s backend best suited to cope with Reddick’s play, and Reddick vs. Raine could be one subplot to watch out for on the night if Coach Adam Keefe decides to match his defensive pairings with certain lines.

Between the pipes, Tyler Beskorowany is possibly one of the best goaltenders of the Elite League era, certainly one of the Giants’ best. His numbers this season back this up, currently leading the league in both save percentage and goals against average. He has kept the Giants in games this year when they have had defensive lapses, and with Belfast being an offensive minded team he will likely have to make a big save or two in Cardiff if the Giants are to win the Challenge Cup for the second time in a row.

Depth Chart

Murphy – Rutherford – Riley
Higgins – Johner – Baun
Smotherman – Ferland – Shields
Swindlehurst – Boxill – Hook
Dwyer*

Leonard – Roach
McFaull – Raine
Garside – Vandermeer

Beskorowany
Murphy
Dickson

*Patrick Dwyer has been out of the line-up since the games against the Glasgow Clan, but he could be the difference maker if he is fit for the final. He can hold onto the puck almost at will, but his NHL third and fourth line work gives the Giants a further option on the penalty kill, where he is excellent at angling the puck carrier into less dangerous positions near the boards. The Giants have quality throughout the line-up, but the ripple effect of having Dwyer on the ice makes every line better, and would be a big boost for the Giants towards lifting the trophy in Cardiff. Jonathan Ferland could be the odd man out in this situation due to import numbers, but his physical style may be important in the playoff atmosphere of a final. Giants fans will be hoping that Coach Keefe has a difficult decision ahead of him come Sunday.

Special Teams

The Giants have had a banner year in terms of their special teams play, continuing to lead the pack in league play on both the powerplay and the penalty kill with a 25.68% PP and an 86.91% PK. Guildford have been having a reasonable season themselves on special teams, sitting fourth in powerplay success at 20.63% and second on the PK at 84.91%.

The Giants on paper have the depth advantage with four strong lines against three, allowing them to play their high tempo game, but that also means Guildford’s best players will get more ice-time to go to work. Guildford have been on a very good run of form, and with both teams set up for offense and quick transitions the game could well turn into a run-and-gun barnburner. The Giants have been chasing trophies on four fronts this season, and are genuine contenders for every trophy available, but I have been saying all season that Guildford remind me of the Giants team of 2017/18, and we know what success they achieved in the very building that the two teams skate into on Sunday.

The final should be a great showcase for where Elite League hockey sits at the moment, and the trophy could go to either team. Whether you are travelling to Cardiff or watching from further afield, enjoy what should be a great show.

(1): All highlight clips sourced from the Belfast Giants and provided by Giants Live TV

Nemesis

I didn’t intend to run with the rollercoaster theme through these articles, but this is how the season is panning out for the Belfast Giants as they chase their first Elite League title win since the 2013/14 season.

Whilst previous league campaigns may have felt more like Portrush’s own Barry’s Big Dipper, with a few thrills but mostly just nice views, this year has become more like Alton Towers’ Nemesis, with the Giants leading the league, then dropping to eleven points behind Cardiff, then briefly catching and passing the Devils on the live league table. The Panthers beat Cardiff, the Lightning were beating the Devils and then they weren’t, and then a great run of form for the Giants ended in a frustrating collapse to the Glasgow Clan last Sunday night, having beaten them in the Challenge Cup and the league in their two previous games. Much like the Alton Towers behemoth, there are still plenty of twists and turns yet to come this season before the silverware is handed out.

Belfast’s current nemesis the Cardiff Devils come to town this Friday and Saturday night, currently holding a three-point advantage in the title race before the teams face off in the SSE arena.

Since they last met, the Devils have won five and lost three league games, with the Giants having an 8-1-1 record in the league in that time, whilst also qualifying for the Challenge Cup Final through two legs against Glasgow. The Giants would likely have taken your hand off for a three-point gap on the 21st January, when they looked almost out of league contention after losing both games in Cardiff.

There isn’t a blood and guts rivalry between the two teams similar to the Giants and Sheffield last year, or the Coventry vs. Nottingham derby, or Derek Campbell and the crossbar. The rivalry is more akin to the Coventry Blaze of old, two teams at the top of the league battling for championships over a number of years. Cardiff all but won the league last year in the SSE arena, and whilst it is too early for the Giants to get one hand on the trophy this weekend, a four point weekend could give them the momentum and belief to go on and lift silverware, whilst getting some manner of payback in stopping Cardiff doing the same thing once again in the SSE arena.

I wrote about the Cardiff Devils for the previous double-header, but the form book goes out of the window for a game like this. Mike Hedden has had some success playing with Joey Martin and Sean Bentivoglio recently, with James Livingston getting some minutes with Charles Linglet and Stephen Dixon. Martin and Gleason Fournier have been impressive as usual, although I still believe you can put Fournier under pressure in his own zone.

For the Giants, Jordan Smotherman has had an immediate impact on the team with five points in six games, giving the Giants a dangerous top nine, with Lewis Hook dropping to the fourth line to give that triplet a further threat as well. Darcy Murphy continues to be the Giants’ most productive player five-on-five, with Blair Riley not far behind, hopefully both Murphy and Patrick Dwyer are fit to give the weekend the fullest possible best-on-best tilt available in the Elite League this year.

These games are usually more about who can outwork their opponents, and both teams will be ready to give everything knowing the damage they can do to their title rivals. The Giants can’t win the league this weekend, but they would almost be back to where they started after the last double-header between the two with anything worse than a split weekend. Win both games, and the Giants will have completed the comeback and will lead the league by one point. The Devils will still have a game in hand, but points on the board win leagues, and both teams still have to face the Clan, the Flyers and the Steelers before the end of the season.

This weekend is sure to be one to remember, as both the Giants and Devils gear up for a weekend of playoff hockey. The Devils can get one hand on the trophy. If the Giants want to win the league, they have to stop that.

I can’t wai… Actually, can we hold off a week or two, let the league settle a bit?

No?

Fair enough. I can’t wait…