EIHL – Fight to the Finish
The signing deadline has now passed and the EIHL season is hitting its last 10 games. The Challenge Cup has reached the first round of the Semi Finals this week. The teams left in contention are pushing for a big finish, and there are no real stand-out favourites.
This time last season, Belfast Giants ended the title race early. This year it may be a two-team race between Sheffield Steelers and current league leaders Braehead Clan, both teams having qualified already for the Playoffs. At time of writing, one point separates Braehead from Sheffield, although the Steelers have a game in hand. That’s not to say the Devils, Panthers or Giants will let them fight it out just between the two of them.
The Giants have had a bit of an up and down season of late. The loss of goaltender Stephen Murphy had an impact on that, along with injury to their top scorer Kevin Saurette. They currently sit in 5th in the league – 7 points adrift of the league leaders – and haven’t had the ideal start to 2015 winning just 6 of their 15 games this year.
The Giants have just picked up Canadian forward Nathan Robinson, last seen with the Nottingham Panthers earlier this season. Robinson has put up some good stats in his career and hopefully will prove to be a good fit in Belfast.
It’s hard to say where the Clan are putting a foot wrong. They are currently sitting one point ahead at the top of the league, where they’ve been hovering for most of the season. The only change made to the squad has been the signing of former Hull Stingrays Captain defenseman Jeff Smith to the end of the season.
The Clan have a number of players that can score, having 5 of their line-up in the top 11 league points scoring leaders; all over a point per game average. They are, however, the most penalised team in the league with defenseman Zack Fitzgerald heading the list with a rather eye-watering 313 penalty minutes in his 41 games this season.
That toughness in their play, makes the Clan a hard team to beat, and it’s going to be difficult toppling them from the Number 1 spot.
Sitting third in the league, level on points with Nottingham Panthers, Cardiff are holding their own; despite a rocky streak of losses from late January into February. They’ve put up some good wins recently with a three goal shut-out win against the Clan this weekend, and a 4 goal shut-out against the Steelers the weekend before.
Team GB goalie Ben Bowns is proving to be a good addition this season, and Canadian forward Joey Martin is racking up the points, currently second in the league in scoring.
Ahead of the signing deadline, Devils have picked up Finnish forward Markku Tahtinen who brings good puck movement, and a lot of experience. Expect a big finish for the team.
I will admit I had some high expectations for Coventry’s performance this season, which haven’t really materialised. They are currently sitting a disappointing 8th in the league, and despite a string of five straight wins they’re unlikely to reach the top spots.
However, a dramatic win against the Clan sees them facing the Devils at the Sky Dome in the Challenge Cup Semi Final first leg this week. As such the Blaze may be one of those teams heading for a big finish, especially now Ryan O’Marra is back from a four game suspension.
Blaze have swapped out Defenseman Rory Rawlyk and Forward Kyle Bochek for Jim Jorgensen (D) and Vladimir Nikiforov (F). Jorgensen comes to the Blaze from the ECHL, but has played in the EIHL previously with the Clan and the Steelers. Nikiforov has moved around Europe this season before landing in Coventry.
The Stars have not had the best season, currently sitting at the bottom of the league and having only 4 regulation wins to their name. It’s a far cry from their win of the Gardiner Conference, and third place league finish last season. At this stage, the Stars really are just playing for pride. Seven OT/SO wins imply the team have some fight, but with just 95 goals in their 41 games there’s a need to find some offence going forward.
They have just signed young American Forward Kyle Gibbons from the ECHL. Although Gibbons has only just turned professional, the Stars can perhaps look ahead to some fresh blood providing a much needed spark, but they’ll need to look towards rebuilding ahead of next season.
The Caps are currently sitting in 9th in the league, ten points ahead of bottom placed Dundee Stars, although just a point behind 8th place Blaze, and a with game in hand. The Caps weakness at present lies with their defence and goaltending, in which there is much room for improvement. They have yet to record a shutout this season, and have let in more than a goal in all but three games.
Defenseman Lukas Bohunicky departed the Caps due to personal reasons, and although not 100% confirmed at this stage, the Caps have made a move to resign Michal Benadik as a replacement. Benadik played two seasons for the Caps before returning to Slovakia this season. He’s a defensive D and hopefully should add some strength to shore up the back.
The Caps best move perhaps has been the release of Joe Grimaldi. For a long time Grimaldi’s behaviour on the ice has been viewed as unsportsmanlike and borderline dangerous. His 18 game suspension in January was the result of checking to the head, spearing and fighting, including throwing his helmet at another player. The Caps sensibly released Grimaldi. The team was imposed the loss of an import player for 10 games.
Fife sit in 6th place at present, trailing 5th place Belfast by 12 points. It’s very unlikely that Fife will leapfrog the Giants in the remaining games of the season, although if they can maintain their position it will be a slight improvement of their 7th placing last season.
Bobby Chaumont is leading the offence, with 60 points in his 50 games, and Fife will need him to continue that pace if they wish to stay ahead of an improving Hull.
Chris Auger was named assistant captain, covering the captaincy role while Kyle Haines was out with injury. Auger is one of Fife’s more consistent players. Finnish Defenseman Niko Suoraniemi joined the team from Poland, and has already made an impact, notching up 11 assists in his 21 games.
Hull currently sit in 7th place in the league, 4 points behind 6th placed Fife. Although as the result of scheduling they have 5 games in hand over the Flyers against whom they play their next two games. Recent wins over Nottingham and Braehead hint of that 6th place not being unachievable after they started out the season winning just 2 of their first 10 games. Goaltender David Brown has not had the best figures this season, but recent performances have helped to bring much deserved points for the Stingrays.
Stingrays have played much of the season short-benched after suffering a number of injuries. Captain Matthew Davies is currently out with a knee injury, and although it was originally thought to be season-ending, it’s looking like Davies could return in early March.
The Panthers are sitting in 4th, equal in points to 3rd place Devils and just 5 points behind leaders Braehead Clan. The Panthers have the best goal differential in the league and are playing in front of the league’s current leading goaltender, Craig Kowalski. It’s too early to rule out the Panthers from winning the league, and given that they have won the Challenge Cup for the last 5 seasons, it’s fair to say they are good in pressure games.
The next three games will be the test, as they play 3rd place Devils, a streaking Blaze and league leaders Braehead Clan. If the Panthers can win those games then it may be a four team race for the top spot.
Captain David Clarke is currently out with a long term upper body injury, but it looks like Stephen Lee, Bruce Graham and Cody Wild may be looking to return. Forward Guillaume Doucet has got off to a fast start since his signing at the beginning of January, with 12 points in his first 11 games. The team have also picked up ex-AHL Defenseman Colby Cohen.
It’s fair to say the Steelers imploded in the games surrounding Christmas, otherwise the race for the league might not have been as tight as it is now. Four back-to-back losses to Nottingham and Belfast put a black mark into what otherwise had been a great season.
The re-signing of Jeff Legue from EPIHL team Sheffield Steeldogs was met with mixed reactions. That it coincided with those four straight losses perhaps highlighted weaknesses that needed addressing.
Forward Jay Latulippe was an early drop. With Legue’s return, the resulting reshuffle saw Danny Bois also departing, and the signing of Slovak Tomas Petruska. Petruska has settled well on the top line with 5 points in 6 games. It was thought that Adams was looking for physicality with the signing, but the fans will happily take his production instead.
The loss of starting goaltender Frank Doyle to long-term injury has meant the signing of American Josh Unice as cover. In his first 8 games, the former Chicago Blackhawks draft pick has two shutouts and is 7-1-0 with a 1.49 GAA and 0.942 SV%. The current form may just be at the right time to push ahead of 1st place Braehead.
The Cardiff Devils head to Coventry to take on the Blaze on Wednesday in the first leg of the Challenge Cup. In the other semi-final, the Sheffield Steelers take on the Nottingham Panthers in Sheffield on Thursday.
The second legs of the semi-finals are set for 24th and 25th February, with the winner of the Steelers/Panthers matchup having the home ice advantage in the final which will take place at the Motorpoint Arena in Sheffield on 8th March.