It’s a time for giving. A time for getting. A time for dumping, and forechecking.
There’ll be bad blood. There’ll be no peace. A time for hating and crashing the crease.
Your Christmas might well include mistletoe and wine, but for the Elite League there will be little love on show as teams try and fill their rinks and arenas with as many games as they can over the festive season.
No one team has opened up a gap in the race to be crowned the 2019/20 Elite League Champions, with the top eight teams currently being covered by just eight points. The holiday season provides a great opportunity for teams to put together the run of form that will label them as contenders in the race to the top of the Elite League.
I have had a look at how the title rivals have fared in recent weeks, the fixtures scheduled over the festive period, and (judging by the season so far), a fool’s errand punt on who I think will come out on top over the Christmas period.
Elite League Fixtures 21/12/2019 – 05/01/2020
|Flames||1-2 (SO)||2-6||1-2||2-1 (SO)|
Sheffield lead the pack into the Christmas period two points ahead of Cardiff and Belfast, and four points ahead of Guildford, though Guildford have four games in hand. Injuries have plagued the South Yorkshire outfit to this point, but they have brought in quality replacements and coped well with the man games they have lost to keep putting points on the board.
Offence has been the calling card of the 2019/20 Steelers, netting 112 goals in league play which has led to two of Sheffield’s players topping the league scoring charts, Brendan Connolly and Marc-Oliver Vallerand. John Armstrong and Rob Dowd are also regularly contributing to give the Steelers four out of the top ten points scorers in the league thus far.
You may have heard of the saying that defence wins championships, however, and this could be a concern for Sheffield as the season progresses. They have conceded 15 more goals than their nearest rivals Cardiff in four more games played, and whilst they don’t play the Devils over Christmas, in three league games against Cardiff they have yet to pick up a league point.
22/12/19 & 05/01/19 @ Clan; 31/12/19 @ Panthers; 04/01/19 vs Flames
Everyone will be ready when the league leaders come to town, but none moreso than the Glasgow Clan. Three tilts against a Clan side desperate to stay within touching distance of the top of the league could be pivotal to the Steelers fortunes, especially considering that the Steelers have lost their two league games against the Renfrewshire side so far this season.
The New Year’s party celebrating the biggest rivalry etc. etc. etc. sees a Nottingham Panthers team in good form of late also trying to hang on to the top teams to keep their title challenge alive. The schedule just gets harder from there when the in-form Guildford Flames arrive three days later.
If the Steelers can get through the next fortnight and are still topping the table, they will have passed a big test of their title credentials.
The Devils are starting to put a run of form together, with at least some of that due to the signing of former Boston Bruin, Washington Capital and Buffalo Sabre Shaone Morrisonn. Since his league debut in a 3-0 win against Fife on 16th November, the Devils have only been pointless once, in the second game of their home Belfast double-header. The Devils had a 6-4 record in their previous 10 games, but since Morrisonn arrived they have gone 5-1-2 in league play.
Morrisonn’s addition has also sparked Gleason Fournier into the form that he is known for, with a marked difference in production since Morrisonn arrived. In his first 14 league games before the Fife game, Fournier only amassed 4 goals and 5 assists, and had not added a point in 3 league games. Since then he has 3 goals and 10 assists in 8 games.
The difference between Fournier’s plus/minus of -3 in 14 games compared to +9 in 8 games with Morrisonn in the line-up is also noteworthy. They haven’t played many minutes together, but the former NHLer’s signing might have given Cardiff the defensive depth to allow Fournier to play more targeted offensive minutes. Cardiff are starting to look like the multiple championship-winning team that they are.
21/12/19 vs Giants; 26/12/19 @ & 27/12/19 vs Flames
Beat Belfast. 21/12/19 could be a key game in both club’s title ambitions. Pointswise, it is two points in December and there is still a long way to go until the Elite League Champions are crowned in March. However, Belfast are hurting from losing their 655 day reign as Challenge Cup champions to the Devils after a pretty rough showing this past Wednesday in Cardiff, losing 4-0 on the night and 5-0 on aggregate in their quarter-final clash. Another win would give Cardiff an edge against their biggest rival for trophies in recent years, whilst putting another hurdle in front of a Giants team already at a crossroads in their season.
Then the games on the 26/12/19 & 27/12/19 against the Guildford Flames… Well, let’s have a look.
The Devils’ Boxing Day opponents the Guildford Flames are quietly putting together an impressive season, without as much fanfare as they warrant. They are currently on a 6 game unbeaten run, and will be feeling confident going into this weekend’s games with the Coventry Blaze.
The Flames have built on the side that pushed the Giants to the brink in both the Challenge Cup final and Playoff semi-final last year, and are dreaming about trophy success of their own. The core remains almost the same as last year, but the lack of defensive depth that the Flames may have suffered from last year has been remedied by Jordan Rowley offensively and Steven Lee defensively. The team currently holds the best goals against per game average in league play at 2.41 goals/game and have conceded only 53 goals, ten less than the 2nd most stingy Belfast Giants.
When you consider the Flames’s returning top five unit of Kruise Reddick, John Dunbar, Ian Watters, Calle Ackered and Jesse Craige, add the solid secondary scoring, defensive scoring depth, and a netminding tandem who can both provide solid work in the crease, depth is not a problem in this campaign and Guildford look like a team that can challenge for the title come the end of March.
26/12/19 vs. Cardiff; 28/12/19 @ Cardiff; 04/01/20 @Sheffield
The Flames have a 1-2 record against Sheffield so far, but have beaten Cardiff in their only league encounter this season. They need to be able to take points off the Devils and the Steelers, and these three games will test whether Guildford can be considered as genuine title challengers.
The reigning and defending Elite League champion Belfast Giants have gone Christmas shopping this week, picking up former Timrå IK centre Rickard Palmberg and former Dundee Star Elgin Pearce. They join recently signed Ryan Lowney and David Goodwin as replacements for Jean Dupuy, Jesse Forsberg and Patryk Wronka, the latter leaving the club just before the Christmas schedule begins.
Wronka had been moved around the line-up through the first few months of the season as the Giants tried to find chemistry in their forward pack, and he had been playing on their third line lately, to the point that he was a healthy scratch in the Giants’ biggest game of the season against Cardiff. He was contributing in this role, using his speed in transition to relieve pressure on the Giants’ defence, but he was brought in to create offence and unfortunately he has not delivered on the high expectations that accompanied his signing.
I think it may just have been that Wronka didn’t fit with the style that Coach Adam Keefe wants to play, with the Polish forward often stopping once he passed the blueline to look for passes, or skating in the offensive zone and trying to pick passes, instead of using a cycle on the boards or moving the puck towards the net-front presence that the team favours. The offensive replacements may suit more of a puck pursuit team, and will look to ignite the Giants’ offence that way. It’s a real shame, but it can happen. Hopefully he can light it up after his move to the French side Gap.
Kevin Raine’s absence has also been a concern for the Giants lately, as their defence has been a strength for them this season. Raine has been a crucial piece of the defensive puzzle since he came to Belfast, and he has been missed since being out of the line-up. The Giants faithful will hope that he is able to return during the busy Christmas fixtures.
The Giants’ penalty kill is testament to their defensive play, sitting 2nd in the league at 84.85%. It has been even more successful in the Giants’ last five league games, conceding only one powerplay goal in that time. Keeping games tight has been a major factor in where the Giants sit in the table despite their relative lack of offensive production.
The Giants are a bit of an unknown quantity right now. 15 players had to be replaced from the final 2018/19 Elite League title-winning squad, and that disruption has been compounded by the recent moves. The Giants are only 2 points off top spot despite their inconsistency, and some lines are starting to show some chemistry, with Farnham-Ward-Reddox finding some success as a regular energy line.
The Giants have another great team on paper, and still have a chance to win trophies despite not always clicking so far, but the new players need to gel with the current group quickly if the Giants are to avoid a frustrating season full of what could have beens.
21/12/19 vs. Cardiff; 26/12/19 vs. Glasgow; 28/12/19 @Glasgow
Beat Cardiff. The Challenge Cup quarter-final loss should hurt, and this game is now massive in showing the Belfast faithful what team they really have this year. Many players cited losing the Continental Cup Final last season as motivation for the team to rally around. Losing the Challenge Cup is maybe not on that magnitude, but it has to become this season’s Continental Cup Final. There has to be a reaction to the performance in Cardiff. If not…
After that, the traditional Boxing day games against the Clan may help to take the Clan out of contention should the Giants win them, but like their games with Sheffield the Clan will be desperate to keep the points away from the Northern Irish side.
If you were to look at the table, you might say that the panthers have been, say it with me, inconsistent this season. However, the Panthers won 4 of their 5 league games in November, and took an overtime point in their only league loss that month. They have a 7-3-1 record since then. Compared to last season’s issues, the Panthers are in a pretty good place right now.
Key to that resurgence has been the roster changes made by Guillaume Doucet and Tim Wallace. Jake Hansen arrived and started going to the net, and good things happened. Julien Talbot arrived and gave the Panthers a balanced top six to back up dynamic scorer Sam Herr, and helped to kickstart semi-cult hero Brett Bulmer’s season. Nottingham struggled for offence at times earlier in the season, but they have turned into a pretty good hockey team of late.
22/12/19 @ Stars; 28/12/19 @ Blaze; 01/01/20 @ Steelers
The Panthers play three home-and-home double-headers over Christmas. In each pair of games they play the away game second, only having to travel once compared to their opponents (though there is an extra day between the two games against the Blaze).
The Sheffield games are critical. The Panthers have only earned one Challenge Cup win against the Steelers in six attempts, albeit gaining an overtime point in a losing effort in November. If the Panthers want to challenge, they have to get points from Sheffield, and with a favourable schedule they may have a chance to gain ground on the teams above them.
The Clan have lost some of their early presence in the standings, currently sitting in 6th place seven points back of top spot, but if they win their two games in hand they would climb to within three points of leaders Sheffield. They have been struggling of late after a 3-7 stretch, including losing their last three games. More worryingly, they only netted 4 goals in those three matchups.
Scott Pitt has been on a point per game pace, but while Rasmus Bjerrum had been putting the puck in the net, he has been goalless in the Clan’s last seven league encounters, and didn’t score in the Clan’s two legs in the Challenge Cup quarter-final win over the Stars. Glasgow could also do with a return to form for Mathieu Roy, with the venerated forward suffering a drought with 2 goals and 0 assists in his last 10 league games.
The Clan also need to address the fact that even when they were winning games, they were getting outshot heavily. The Clan beat the Devils 6-2 in September, but shots on goal were 43-24 to the Devils. The next game, a 4-3 win over Sheffield, shots on goal 41-22 in favour of the Steelers. A 3-1 win over the Giants in October saw the Clan get outshot 42-16.
Overall the Clan have taken 649 shots on goal and given up 814, which must lose Glasgow points over the course of the season. They will have to lower Patrick Kileen’s workload if they are to climb back up the table.
All of them. The Clan need to start winning games to get back on level terms with the teams above them, and with three games against Sheffield and two against Belfast their title ambitions might be over by January. Win some of these games and they will keep the table tighter and may be able to get back into the hunt for the league trophy.
So who will come out on top? I’ve had a very unscientific look at all of the Christmas fixtures, and likely picked all of the wrong results to come up with a Christmas table:
|GP||W||L||OT Loss||Points||Win %|
Adding in the games completed so far would give a league table after 05/01/2020 that looked like this:
|GP||W||L||OT Loss||Points||Win %|
So yes, I’m completely sitting on the fence, with the table getting even tighter over the festive fortnight. I tried this a few times with pretty similar results. The big differences could be from picking Guildford over Sheffield on 04/01/2020, but if that result goes Sheffield’s way their gap could be six points pending other results. I also split the Panthers’ results with the Steelers and Blaze, but if Nottingham step up and take four point weekends at Christmas and New Year there could be a clearer gap between the top and bottom five teams.
Update: Here are the points gathered by each team since 21/12/19, including 02/01/2020.
|GP||W||L||OT Loss||Points||Win %|
The Steelers, Devils and Panthers have kept up the pace so far, with Sheffield doing better than I expected and passing some big tests to stay on top. The rest will hope that the Flames and Clan are desperate enough to ruin the Steeler’s first weekend of the year this weekend. The Blaze wouldn’t be fond of a three point system, and the Stars are rebounding from a poor run of form. The game tonight between the Stars and the Giants is a big one, with the Giants now unable to catch Sheffield if they win all of their games in hand.
More so than any other year, the Christmas period may whittle down the current batch of contenders, especially if one or two teams put a run together over the festive period. But, “Never too high, never too low” after a game looks to be even more fitting this year with the league being so competitive. We may be in for the most hotly contested Elite League title race since… Well, last year.
Whatever happens, it’s a great time to be an Elite League fan. Enjoy your festive hockey, and have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
(1): All other statistics sourced from the Elite League