Rock Bottom and Raring to Go

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The most difficult league positions to occupy in the NIHL are arguably those at the foot of the table. With Sutton Sting and Sheffield Senators currently occupying eighth and ninth position in the Moralee Conference respectively, why is it that such teams fail to match their league competitors, and can these sides reverse their fortunes before their 2015-16 campaign is over?

The two tier format of the National Ice Hockey League in recent seasons has meant automatic promotion for the champions of the Laidler Conference and automatic relegation for those who sit at the foot of the Moralee Conference. Meanwhile, the team finishing second to the champions in Division Two are usually awarded a league placement playoff against the side situated above the relegation place at the end of the season in Division One. This particular format saw Manchester Minotaurs (formerly Trafford Metros, and the now rebranded Altrincham Aces) suffer automatic relegation in their 2014-15 campaign whilst Whitley Warriors, struggling to compete with the strong opposition in the Moralee Conference, found themselves in a battle for survival which lead to a relegation-promotion playoff against Widnes Wild.

Presently, Altrincham continue to fight for points in the Laidler Conference but five consecutive losses has left the side six points adrift from fourth placed Blackburn Eagles. Despite this, Head Coach Robyn Crebbin has managed to hold onto Aces’ experienced captain Brian Worrall whilst former EPL netminder Jorge El-Hage and Blackburn Hawks’ Jake Nurse have signed for the club. Likewise, versatile Lithuanian Deivid Cetvertak, who has played in Latvia, Germany and Belarus in his short career, and Slovakian left winger Jaroslav Kujec have joined Crebbin’s line up following the departure of last season’s imports Roman Borovsky, Tomas Hnilica, Levente Rácz and Michal Uryga. This suggests that the team have regenerated this season and, whilst their form may not be at its best at the moment, next season may afford the opportunity of a return to Division One for the club.

Enduring a great deal over the last eight seasons, the Aces enjoyed a placement playoff win in 2009 and then went on to suffer relegation in 2013 from which they were only saved as a result of Coventry Blaze’s voluntary move to NIHL 2. In comparison, Whitley Warriors have turned around their fortunes far quicker than could ever have been imagined following the return of David Longstaff. With support from new signings Andre Payette, Shaun Kippin, Stu Tomlinson and Joe Stamp, as well as long-serving Warriors DJ Good and Callum Watson, the Warriors have already exceeded the seventeen points they tallied last season and find themselves second from top, instead of second bottom.

This season, Sutton Sting occupy this spot as they sit in eighth place with only Sheffield Senators worse off than themselves. Six victories, a draw and fourteen defeats leave John Ross’ side battling for every point but, with outstanding Russian shot stopper Dmitri Zimozdra in net, strong defencemen such as Ryan Johnson and captain Simon Offord on the blue line, and imports Sergejs Jegorovs and Vjaceslavs Movko bringing skill to Sutton’s squad, the South Yorkshire outfit still have time to turn their season around. With seventeen points, the Sting are just three behind Solway who also had a slow start to their 2015-16 campaign but, as Martin Grubb’s team have five games in hand, catching the Sharks will be no mean feat.

As a team who were newly promoted to Division One in 2012, the Sting have transformed from a team who made it into the playoffs in their first season in the Moralee Conference to a side failing to pick up points and compete with the ever-improving opposition in the NIHL’s highest tier. Whilst Sutton’s main points scorers are player-coach Ross, who has so far hit home seven goals and created sixteen assists, Movko, who has tallied seventeen points to date and Johnson, who has one goal less than the import, the team’s overall goal scoring threat has been significantly reduced this season. In their first season as a Moralee Conference side, Sutton managed an outstanding one hundred and twenty one goals, conceding one hundred and one. This, compared to the seventy six that the side have lit the lamp with this season, portrays a great difference in the team’s offensive capabilities as the side now have a negative goal difference of -18 to show that Ross’ teammates have been unable to keep pace with their competition in the NIHL.

Despite this, Sutton have won their last two games, defeating Telford Tigers by four goals to two and triumphing over fifth placed Billingham Stars in a surprising 5-3 victory against the Teesiders. This indicates the fighting spirit of the Sting and with such resilience they have been able to bounce back from defeat time and time again to challenge their fellow competitors in Division One, though the outcome has not always favoured the team.

Suffering a worse fate still are Andrew Chapman’s Sheffield Senators. With zero points, twenty two losses and one hundred and eighty three goals against them, the Senators are reminiscent of Manchester Minotaurs who failed to pick up a single point last season. Yet, showing great fortitude, the foot-of-the-table side continue their battle in the NIHL, making gradual progress to reduce their goals against rate each game. Losing 14-0 to Solway Sharks in Dumfries, the Senators went on to take the lead at The Forum a week later and, though the points eventually slipped from Sheffield’s grasp, the side prevented the score line from exceeding 5-3; the Senators’ best result to date in the Moralee Conference. With many young players, and several senior ones who have missed out on playing in seasons prior to this one, the Senators have struggled to break their run of poor form as they attempt to compete with the more established teams of the NIHL’s Division One.

This is not to say that there is no hope for the team. Two seasons ago, Telford Tigers, previously known as Telford Titans, endured relegation but Jason Parry’s team have since bounced back to compete in the Moralee Conference; following the rebranding of the club, the Tigers won twenty three league fixtures in Division Two to see the side promoted once again. Presently, the Tigers sit in fifth position but remain a force to be reckoned with as they challenge for the playoffs.

Similarly, Solihull Barons were promoted in 2011 to the English National League and, though showing character against some of the most established teams in this division, the side were relegated alongside Nottingham Lions. Now, Perry Doyle’s side sit two places above the Tigers and they are four points ahead of the Shropshire outfit to demonstrate just how successful rock bottom teams can be if they regenerate and work hard to enhance their overall performance.

As a result, it is clear that those teams which find themselves rock bottom in division one are in such a position because they are unable to compete with, and adapt to, the high standard of competition in the Moralee Conference. Whilst these sides may go on to suffer relegation, the history of other clubs in the same position indicates that the changes made in the process of demotion can have a positive impact on the future of such teams. The success of Telford and Solihull this season evidences that relegation can often be the key to regeneration. Whilst this is not always the case, with clubs such as Coventry Blaze and Nottingham Lions remaining in the Laidler Conference at present, it is important to recognise that those clubs facing relegation have an opportunity to rebrand, regroup and recover to accomplish a great deal in the top tier of the NIHL.

Whilst Sutton Sting and Sheffield Senators are faced with the prospect of relegation if the EIHA are to follow the same format as last season, both teams will have an opportunity to reverse their fortunes and return stronger than ever.

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