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Monday, January 03, 2011

EIHL Mid-Season Review

Before the start of the season I put forward my predictions as to how I thought the league would finish. Here are is the current standings with my predictions in brackets.

1 Belfast Giants (1)
2 Cardiff Devils (5)
3 Sheffield Steelers (3)
4 Nottingham Panthers (4)
5 Coventry Blaze (2)
6 Braehead Clan (6)
7 Hull Stingrays (7)
8 Dundee Stars (10)
9 Edinburgh Capitals (9)
10 Newcastle Vipers (8)

So far then not too bad, in fact if Cardiff and Coventry swapped spots, and the same with Dundee and Newcastle I’d be spot on season to date.  Looking at things in a little more detail, here is what I thought about teams before the season and how reality has actually compared.

Belfast Giants
My pre-season favourites and no surprise they are currently top of the table. The Giants have suffered from injury problems to key players such a Rich Seeley, Brandon Benedict and Colin Hemmingway, but have been able to bring in equally good replacements such as Simon Lambert and Michael Jacobsen. Added to what was already a roster deep in talent, this has allowed the Giants to maintain their position as front runners.  Still one of the favourites for the title but both the Steelers and Devils have games in hand and are hot on their heels. Belfast will be wanting to improve on some recent hit and miss form that has seen them lose some games they would have been expected to win.

Braehead Clan
The Clan had a great start to the season, but have slowed off the pace as the season progressed and settled in to a mid-table position as expected. Barring a late season collapse they should comfortably make the play-offs but face battle for 6th place with a much improved Hull Stingrays. Could have the potential to spring a surprise or two come playoff time.

Cardiff Devils
The question with Cardiff was always did they have the scoring depth of the other top teams and could they take their impressive home form on the road. I said they could be a dark horse if everything clicked and they avoided injuries they could be an outside bet for the title. Well guess what? They have been relatively injury free andcertainly have clicked,  to the point that if they win their games in hand they will go top of the league. Jon Pelle has been a revelation scoring almost a goal a game, while Scott Matzka has lived up to his pre-season billing. Add to that better than expected production from the supporting cast such as Tylor Michel, Scott McRae and young Brit Sam Smith and the Devils are certainly in the running for their first Elite League title. While the above contributions shouldn’t be overlooked, perhaps the turning point for the Devils was the loss of Justin Sawyer, as it saw the Devils add former NHLer Craig Weller who is establishing himself as one of the leagues premier defencemen.

Coventry Blaze
I said in my predictions that the Blaze had the advantage of being able to call on their ENL players should injuries arise. Well they certainly had to do that, but such is the extent of their injury problems even that hasn’t been able to help the Blaze keep up the title challenge. Indeed things got so bad that the Blaze had lost almost their entire defensive corps to injury including the influential Jonathan Weaver. Unlike Belfast, Coventry don’t seem to have the resources to bring in big name replacements and as such a started to lose touch with the leading pack and another league title is looking very unlikely. However, if they can get bodies back for the end of the season, the playoffs are certainly a possibility.

Dundee Stars
After an awful start to the season including not scoring a goal until their 3rd game, the Stars now have a realistic chance at making the playoffs. Injury to goalie Jerad Kaufmann was perhaps the turning point, with Ladislav Kudrna coming in as a temporary replacement. Kudrna’s performances made the role his own, and further improvements to the roster such as releasing Sean McMorrow and signing Jay Latulippe have made the Stars competitive at last.

Edinburgh Capitals
When doing my pre-season predictions Edinburgh still had much of their roster to sign. Some of the signings they then made didn’t stick around. Coach Brad Gratton left after a couple of months, defenceman Daniel Madsen lasted just 5 games, while leading scorers Alex Kim and Chris St Jaques both left in December.  Edinburgh’s financial woes are no secret and replacements for any of these players look unlikely, so I expect my pre-season prediction of the Caps not making the play-offs is looking pretty safe.

Hull Stingrays
After an 11th hour reprieve in the summer, much of Hulls roster was still to be signed when I did my predictions. After a slow start, Sylvain Cloutier seems to have got the team heading in the right direction, while the addition of ex-NHLer Drew Bannister on the blue line has had a steadying influence. Hull are now looking good for a playoff spot and could even push Braehead for 6th place, not bad for a team that didn’t even look like it was going to start the season a few months ago.

Newcastle Vipers
Another team that had a few signing still to make when I made my predictions. I said at the time that if their remaining signings were top drawer they could challenge for mid table, otherwise it could be wooden spoon territory. Sadly for Vipers fans last place looks very likely. Similar to Edinburgh, the Vipers face financial difficulties and I would expect that along with the Caps they are unlikely to feature in the post season.

Nottingham Panthers
As always on paper the Panthers have one of the best teams, and while some teams are struggling to put together a full roster, Nottingham have extra imports sat in the stands.  Initially Nottingham were up with the pace setters, but injury to goalie Craig Kowalski saw them drop slightly off the pace despite bringing back Kevin St.Pierre as his replacement. Panthers are still in the mix if they can string together a good run of results, but will need stars like David-Alexandre Beauregard to improve if they are to do so.  Just last week they brought in former GB coach Rick Strachan as an assistant coach to Corey Neilson, how this will change things will remain to be seen, but it could make the Panthers more defensively sound, something they need if they are to win their first league title in over 50 years.

Sheffield Steelers
Following another summer of upheaval, the Steelers are back fighting it out for a league title.  Coach Ben Simon has brought a breath of fresh air to the club and been rewarded with winning results. An ownership change just before Christmas should help provide stability, while on the ice players are living up to expectations and more.  Steelers lost a rejuvenated Jonathan Phillips for the season early on, but with ex-NHLer Rob Globke added to the roster Steelers are able to role three effective lines. Ervins Mustukovs has proven a valuable asset and currently leads the league in save percentage, goals against average and shutouts. If Mustukovs can continue to keep the pucks out while the likes of Legue, Talbot, Simon, Clark, Tait and Globke can light the lamp at the other end, Sheffield are in with a very real chance of adding to their already impressive collection of silverware.

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