With the Elite League season almost three months old Jono Bullard from the Cat’s Whiskers Podcast looks at how all ten teams have done so far in this two part article.
After looking at Belfast Giants, Braehead Clan, Cardiff Devils, Coventry Blaze & Dundee Stars in part one, Jono now looks at Edinburgh Capitals, Fife Flyers, Manchester Storm, Nottingham Panthers & Sheffield Steelers in part two
Like Dundee Stars the Caps have been another surprise package and have made their Murrayfield rink into something of a fortress with just two home league defeats so far. Their list of scalps is impressive; Nottingham, Braehead, Cardiff & Sheffield have all lost in Edinburgh this season. Their success has been built on some outstanding forward recruitment by player/coach Riley Emmerson, the pick being Ryan Hayes who currently leads the EIHL point scoring charts, ably assisted by Craig McCallum, Trevor Gerling & Taylor Dickin. Where the Caps do have problems though is in defence, where they currently have the worst defensive record in the league conceding 95 goals in 21 games. As a team they have the ability to make the play-offs, you could argue a case that with a favourable draw they stand a chance of winning them, but they will have to tighten up at the back as that could threaten a play-off berth that many would say they deserve on performances so far, and after so many seasons fighting it out at the bottom surely no-one would begrudge them some success.
The Flyers have been a real Jekyll & Hyde team so far this season, a 0.577 record against their Gardiner Conference rivals is negated somewhat by a 0.200 record in games against Erhardt opposition. Prior to the start of the season many expected the Flyers attack to be quite potent. That hasn’t manifested itself so far as they currently sit on an average of 2.8 goals scored per game, level with the Blaze. However they are faring better in defence where they sit joint 3rd at the moment conceding 3.2 goals per game. Like Cardiff, one of their biggest assets is the noisy home crowd in Kirkcaldy which has helped them to a 0.615 record in all competitions so far. They’ll need that backing for the remainder of the season if they are to make the final reckoning for the play-offs. They have the quality but will need greater consistency down the stretch.
Having only announced their entry into this seasons EIHL on the 24th June, Storm were up against it from the start. Perhaps their most important signing wasn’t on the ice but off it. General Manager Neil Russell has worked his backside off to put a competitive team on the ice but also to get people into the Altrincham Ice Dome to watch it. History shows that teams entering the league struggle in their inaugural season and Storm are no exception, however at the time of writing Storm have won their last three games away from Altrincham. If they can regain some consistency at home they will certainly be in with a shout of making the play-offs, which Russell and coach Omar Pacha will feel is a realistic target. Due to the circumstances of their late inclusion they are lacking in depth of British players which may hurt them down the stretch, but the Storm will be fighting for a play-off berth and will be no more than the organisation deserve if they make it.
Most thought that going an import short would hamper a Panthers title challenge, despite the depth of British talent in the ranks. Corey Neilson’s team have since proved most people wrong. Perhaps the most pressure was on new netminder Miika Wiikman, having to fill the skates of Nottingham legend Craig Kowalski. If he was feeling the pressure he hasn’t shown it, currently sitting on top of the netminder charts with a goals against average of 2.22 and a save percentage of 92.2% from 24 games. He’s also had a stellar defensive unit in front of him that currently has the Panthers as the best defence in the EIHL conceding an average of just 2.4 goals per game. Evan Mosey aside, a completely new import forward line up has helped contribute an average of 4.1 goals per game, the pick of the bunch being the currently injured Stephen Schultz and Slovakian Juraj Kolnik, who stands fifth in the league list of top points scorers at the moment. What Neilson has built this season is a team that plays for each other and is perhaps the best opportunity Panthers will have of adding another league championship since their only EIHL title win in 2012/13.
After sacking Gerad Adams, a coach that brought them the EIHL championship last season, it was essential that Steelers hit the ground running this campaign with new coach Paul Thompson. Initially that’s what they did, despite losing all their CHL games against extremely tough opposition they came out of it with an immense amount of credit. They took that momentum into their opening EIHL match-ups, losing just two of their first ten games in all competitions. However an injury to starting netminder Tyler Plante coincided with a worrying decline in form for Thompson’s men. Conceding too many goals and having a habit of collapsing when the pressure is on have become big problems for a team that were favourites with most bookmakers before the season started. However you can never write the Steelers off and they still sit in joint 3rd place as I write this, but they will have to improve on an away record of just 0.375 in league games if they are to mount a serious title challenge.
This has the potential to be a very close title race with four, perhaps five teams still in with a chance of taking the Monteith Bowl. At the other end of the table the fight for play-off places could be as, if not more, intense than the fight for the title. For perhaps the first time in the EIHL’s history there are no easy games any more as results so far this season have proved. The next three months promises to be interesting as well as gripping and hopefully intense. It’s a good time to be a hockey fan.