The State of the EPIHL – Part 2 (So Far This Season…)
I want to start this recap with a caveat: it has been a tumultuous few weeks since I wrote “Part 1”, wherein the word tumultuous has been used in a very understated manner. Hirings, firings, injuries, panic, excitement and a dash of drama has made the Premier League something of a topsy turvy world at present. Accusations of player poaching, the implosion of a seemingly stable team and upsets galore.
The Bees are an interesting conundrum. New ownership arrived in the form of Precision Sports Marketing (PSM). Cue: fanfare. The previous fan-led custodians stepped down after some five seasons, but there were delays in late spring and announcements seemed to take forever to materialise. A sense of worry persisted whilst licence negotiations took place.
It turned out that the roster had been signed up all along. PSM took the bold step of unveiling the entire squad in one fell swoop and a lot of people were sceptical – “not deep enough” was the resounding opinion around the league. Hopping aboard were a threesome of ex-Lightning players and a Basingstoke legend: Alex Mettam, Chris Wiggins, Kamil Tvrdek and Tony Redmond, respectively. Mettam was to be the new netminding hope in Bracknell, Wiggins brings oodles of grit and toughness, Tvrdek was to be an upgrade on the retiring Martin Masa and Redmond just exemplifies experience and veteran presence.However, the Bees stumbled out of the blocks.
Moments of promise were glimpsed but for weeks there was very little progress made. Eventually the tide turned and positive results began to trickle in. This has culminated in two victories over the Phoenix, one over the Flames and a rather rare one over the Bison in Basingstoke (Bracknell’s first since the Bison dropped down to the EPIHL). This has led to the Bees jumping three places up the standings in the blink of an eye. Then, shockingly, PSM relieved head coach Gareth Cox of his duties and appointed Czech import Lukas Smital as player/coach. Despite Cox’s sacking, new found confidence could propel them higher but I would wager fourth or fifth is possible if they continue in this rich vein of form.
Ah, the joys of Swindon. If any team lost a key player it was the Wildcats. Aaron Nell made the leap upwards to the Elite League, abandoning his partner-in-terrorising-the-EPIHL Jonas Hoog. This has slowed Hoog, but not entirely stifled him. The solution to losing Nell? Snap up Stevie Lyle.
As tactics go, it’s not bad. This was no more evident than in a semi-recent penalty shot win against the Bracknell Bees, Lyle faced 51 shots and only shipped one goal for a sublime 98.04 save percentage. On his day, he’s a rock and gives any team a chance to win. Beyond that Swindon are a bit hit-and-miss. Henri Sandvik is good but not great. Juha Silvander has underwhelmed to date, and indeed was axed in favour of Jan Kostal – a new face on these fair shores. It’s hard to ascertain their identity and coach Ryan Aldridge seems to be in agreement judging by his post-game comments most weekends. Yet they have managed some vital wins and racked up a few points on the sly. Hard to ignore them and it’s very likely they will be in the playoff mix come season’s end.
The Steeldogs are another slightly enigmatic team, stoutly led by the EPIHL’s pantomime villain extraordinaire Andre Payette. The league would be a duller place without him, so we are fortunate that Sheffield see fit to use an import slot on a third-line player who is better with his fists than with a puck on his stick.
Mostly the roster retained its status quo but there was one notable addition: Greg Chambers. A singularly gifted player at this level, he is possibly the best play-maker in the league. Sticking to their guns with goaltender Dalibor Sedlar is another odd choice of import selection, but at times he has shone.
Unfortunately, key injuries have somewhat undermined the Steeldogs, as both of the aforementioned Sedlar and Chambers have missed significant chunks of time. Despite those factors, they have managed to pinch points off nearly every team. Their biggest asset is speed and that is a valuable commodity against some of the more veteran teams and allows them to play counter-attacking hockey. The standout has been Lubomir Korhon with his 40 points in 24 games. I don’t think they are guaranteed a playoff spot but if they can get healthy then there is enough talent to grab sixth or seventh place.
The Phantoms are one of the teams who were hyped up and essentially overrated during the off-season. They did a full switch with their imports from last season and brought in four new (to Peterborough) faces. A lot of whispers hinted at fourth or fifth place, but they languish in ninth.
That is not to say that their squad isn’t impressive in some areas – Erik Piatak has a nice looking CV, Marcel Petran is a stunningly good offensive d-man – but there is a distinct lack of experience overall. It is nice to see young, upcoming players get ice-time but it’s meant that Peterborough have shipped the most goals-against in the league. That’s not a healthy way to play.
It’s not all doom and gloom though, they have produced some quality wins and when they click they can be rampant. It just hasn’t happened on enough nights. I think 8th is a kind guess at their final position, I would hazard they will slip out of the playoff spots and finish 10th.
Everyone in the league has had a soft spot for Telford over the past few seasons. They were run by a Fans’ Trust, treated with a dose of derision and seen as the whipping boys of the EPIHL. That’s how their season started and they occupied the basement from the get-go.
But big money sponsorship arrived: Red Touch Media would be Telford’s headline sponsor and enable them to be more competitive in the mid to long-term. That situation mutated into Red Touch Media becoming team owners backed by local-boy-made-good Wayne Scholes – a multi-millionaire who grew up in Telford but who now helms a large business empire in Salt Lake City, Utah. Let the fun commence!
In came a fifth import as injury cover – Timo Kuuluvainen, Adam Walker fresh from 300 games in the Elite League and veteran defenceman James Pease. The Tigers began to string some crucial wins together beating Manchester, Swindon and Milton Keynes. This process snowballed and the Tigers started publicly advertising that they were recruiting; and they haven’t been fussy about how they attract players – dangling money in front of Joe Miller (Bison) and Dan Scott (Jets) to leave their respective teams and join the revolution up in Shropshire. Is it too little too late? Maybe. Maybe not.
This is a lot of roster shake-up during the season for players to immediately gel. I think they could squeeze into 8th but I would expect them to settle into 9th just because we’re already into December. However, I would not be surprised if I was completely wrong. The Tigers deserve some good fortune, as do their fans.
There we have it. The EPIHL. At times it’s insane, but we all love it. To see the league-leading Manchester Phoenix go from putting 11 past Peterborough and 12 past Slough to conceding 8 to Bracknell says it all. Any given night can yield any upset. It’s a joy to watch some of these players grace our rinks. Long live the EPIHL.
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