EIHL: Playoff Weekend
With two out of three pieces of silverware decided on, the playoffs were the last possible option to mark a winning season.
Ahead of the Playoff weekend was the home and away qualifying legs. Challenge Cup winners Cardiff Devils were up against tough competition in the Belfast Giants, in the only game on the Friday. In what turned out to be a hard fought battle, Belfast’s 1st period goal was the only marker in the game.
It set up a similar theme for the other first round matches. Hull Stingrays pushed league runners up Braehead Clan to a tight game, heading back to Hull only one goal down in a 2-3 contest. The Sheffield Steelers struggled in Fife, needing a last minute goal to take the Flyers to Sheffield with a 3-2 advantage. In Nottingham, the Coventry Blaze held the Panthers to a 3-3 draw. There was everything to play for in the second legs.
Belfast got off to a quick start in Cardiff with two goals in the first. From that point they didn’t look back, knocking out the more favoured Devils 7-3, an 8-4 win on aggregate. In the other three games, the scores were a lot closer.
Two first period goals were all Coventry needed to ensure their place in Nottingham, beating the Panthers 2-1 on the night, 5-4 on aggregate. In Sheffield, Fife very nearly pulled out a shock defeat after the Steelers almost blew a 3-0 lead on the night. The final score was 3-3 after Fife put on a great effort to give them a chance. The final aggregate score was 6-5.
Hull, on the other hand, managed the shock defeat of league runners up Braehead. Heading into Hull a goal down the first two periods remained scoreless until a Matt Haywood goal looked like the final nail for the Stingrays. But two goals from Hull pushed the game into overtime , Carl Lauzon finding the net to end Braehead’s otherwise good season without any silverware.
That set-up first day match-ups between Sheffield and Hull, and Coventry and Belfast.
Sheffield went into the Playoff Weekend as the favourites – the league winners and current Playoff Cup holders had what should have been the easier match-up against the Stingrays; however Hull, having taken out Braehead, weren’t prepared to be labelled the easy option. The first period ended scoreless, with Hull playing like they intended to win. Hull drew first blood with a goal from Eric Galbraith, but goals from Darrell Hay and Colton Fretter saw the Steelers up at the end of the second.
Hull fought back with a goal from Cory Tanaka, and it looked like the first game of the weekend was heading for overtime, Hull netminder David Brown doing a fantastic job to keep the Stingrays in with a chance. It would have been a fitting end, but a late holding penalty to Omar Pacha saw the Stingrays on the PK in the final minute of regulation. The league’s Player of the Year, Mathieu Roy, found the back of the net with just 3 seconds left on the clock.
The second semi-final of the weekend saw the Blaze take on the Giants. In what was another very close game, the difference turned out to be EIHL netminder of the year Brian Stewart. Stewart saw 41 shots come his way, and proved to be the man of the moment in the shootout. The Giants opened the scoring 8 minutes into the 1st on a shot from Jeff Mason, but it was a matter of seconds later that Coventry equalised courtesy of Justin DaCosta. It was one of only four shots on goal for the Blaze in the first period. Mason added a helper in the second on a Ray Sawada goal, that put the Giants up 2-1 in a second period in which saw the Blaze outshot again.
Less than two minutes into the third period and Jereme Tendler scored to pull even. It seemed to wake the Blaze up, putting up as many shots on goal in the third as they had done in the first two periods combined, even so they were still outshot by the Giants who were struggling to get the better of Stewart. Only one penalty came in the game, a kneeing minor to Steven Goertzen four minutes into the third period, but Stewart and the Blaze held on. Overtime was all Blaze, them having the better chances on goal, but solid performances by Stewart and Murphy meant that it came down to penalty shots. After two scoreless rounds, the difference in the shootout was a goal from Ben Arnt, and Stewart standing firm.
3rd Place Game
The first match on Sunday was the 3rd place match between Hull and Belfast. Belfast opted to go with their back-up goalie, Andrew Dickson, while Hull stuck with Brown. It turned out to be a high scoring affair. Hull struck first with goals from Cory Tanaka on the only penalty of the game for too many men. Hull then doubled their score with a goal from Dominic Osman. Belfast fought back with goals from Darryl Lloyd and Captain Adam Keefe, ending the first 2-2. The second period was similarly evenly split, with the teams trading goals. Belfast got in first with a goal from Nathan Robinson, which was evened out by Osman’s second.
Hull opted to swap out their netminders, bringing in back-up Jeff Lill for his debut with the team. The back and forth continued – a goal from Belfast’s Colin Shields was matched by Eric Galbraith, and Lloyd’s second of the game was balanced out by Brendan Jamison’s shot in the final minute of the second period. It was even into the third. Hull went ahead with a goal by Eric Galbraith, but three quick goals in just over two minutes from Nathan Robinson, Adam Keefe and Mark McCutcheon put Belfast ahead, where they stayed. The final score 8-6.
The Final was all set for a worthy battle between the league’s Netminder of the Year, Coventry’s Brian Stewart, against the league’s leading scorer and Player of the Year, Sheffield’s Mathieu Roy. The Steelers had the edge on the season, having taken the match-ups between the teams 7 to 3, but Coventry were showing form late in the season and nothing was certain.
Coventry got off to the better start. Although there was some debate as to whose goal it was (it was eventually credited to Steven Goertzen), what was clear was that the puck had got past Sheffield netminder Josh Unice just three minutes in off a hard shot from Egener. Goertzen’s line which had been dominant the day before had the better of the Steelers, having far better rhythm than the match-up line of Roy, Forney and Fretter. Turnovers by the Steelers did little to help their cause.
There was a lot of push and shove, especially on the third line match up, and it was only a matter of time before the penalty box saw some action. The first penalty on the board went to the Blaze, Arnt picking up a retaliation penalty against Hewitt off the puck. The Steelers, and Forney, came close on a few occasions but the Blaze held out to kill the penalty. They held out against some better Steelers’ play in the later part of the period, going in at the break 1-0 up, making the most of their 5 shots to the Steelers’ 12.
The Blaze started the second just as effectively. It took just 30 seconds for Tendler to find the back of the Steelers net off a rebound from a shot from O’Marra. Hewitt drew another penalty, Tanaka headed to the box for a high-stick. Although the Steelers power play looked dangerous again, Stewart was solid. The Blaze nearly managed to add to their score as the penalty expired, Unice needing to pull off a good save against a 4 on 2 rush. A few minutes later and the Blaze left the Steelers third line in the offensive zone, Ross Venus with great foot speed and a better finish to put the Blaze ahead 3-0.
The Steelers may have had the most possession, but the Blaze made the most of what they had. The Blaze turned up to win, the Steelers were clearly tired and dragging their heels. It took just a minute from Venus’ goal for Ashley Tait to make it a deserved 4-0. At that point it was a case of how many the Blaze would put in and whether Stewart was actually beatable.
Starting the third period on the penalty kill didn’t help the Steelers find much early rhythm. An after the whistle hit at the end of the 2nd from Hewitt was inexcusable. The Steelers fought hard shorthanded, and carried that momentum after the penalty was killed. Finally a mistake from Stewart, after losing his stick, left an open net for Roy to shoot the puck into. The Blaze argued over whether Roy had moved Stewart’s stick, but Stewart opting to leave the net to retrieve it wasn’t going to change the referee’s decision when the Steelers played to the whistle.
A second penalty from Hewitt messed up the Steelers rhythm again, but the Steelers were starting to play high risk hockey, and putting their top two scorers Forney and Roy out on the kill proved a good move with Roy knocking in his second on a short-handed effort. The Steelers played hard aggressive play in the kill, nearly adding a second short-handed goal as the penalty expired.
The Blaze looked to protect their lead by keeping to single man forechecking, which while it gave the Steelers the better possession, ultimately it was enough. Tanaka drew a penalty shot on a breakaway with 3 minutes left, and Unice successfully covered the angles and stopped the shot. Unice vacated the net after that. The extra attacker didn’t help and the Blaze ended the 60-minutes as well-deserved winners.
Sheffield might have let in some soft goals, but Coventry were the better side on the night, and sticking to their game plan worked well for them against the favourites. Despite a disappointing start to the season, which led to the sacking of head coach Marc Lefebvre, the Blaze finished strong and showed the grit and success they should have started the season with.
It’s a well deserved finish for the team, their first banner since 2004-05, something they can hopefully capitalise on going into next season.