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Sunday, February 13, 2011

Elite League Title Race Hots Up

eihltitleIt was only a few weeks ago it was looking like the Cardiff Devils could run away with the Elite League title.  What a difference a few games make.  Cardiff’s record breaking winning streak came to and end, and since the Devils have faltered including being on the wrong end of a 7-1 score line to Braehead last week. Quietly, the Sheffield Steelers went on their own winning run leapfrogging the Devils and currently sit at the top of the table, 6 points clear of Cardiff. But this years title is far from being a two horse race.

Most peoples pre-season favourites, the Belfast Giants have also been quietly picking up the points and following back to back wins against the Coventry Blaze now sit second in the table, 5 points behind the Steelers.  Belfast's form since the start of the new year has been impressive. In 11 games, they have dropped points just twice (losses to Sheffield and Nottingham), which given 7 of those games have been against either Sheffield, Cardiff, Nottingham or Coventry plus a couple against Braehead is quite an impressive record. In fact in their 6 games since losing 5-4 to Sheffield towards the end of January, the Giants have only given up 7 goals. The Giants certainly seem to be finding their form at the right time.

Here is how the run in for the rest of the season looks for all three teams.
Belfast
Cardiff Sheffield
Newcastle A
Dundee A
Edinburgh A
Hull A
Sheffield H
Sheffield A
Edinburgh H
Newcastle H
Hull H
Nottingham A
Coventry A
Edinburgh A
Sheffield H
Sheffield A
Coventry A
Braehead A
Nottingham H
Hull H
Newcastle A
Braehead H
Hull A
Nottingham H
Coventry H
Edinburgh A
Braehead A
Cardiff A
Cardiff H
Dundee H
Hull H
Belfast A
Nottingham A
Belfast H
Newcastle A
Braehead A
Braehead H

Of the three Sheffield seem to have the toughest run in.  The key games will be the four against their title rivals. Two wins against Belfast would give the Steelers a 9 point cushion, while wins for Belfast would put them within a point of the Steelers.  Assuming Cardiff Win their games in hand, the games between the Devils could give the Steelers a 6 point cushion or at the other extreme put the Devils 2 points clear at the top of the table. Of rest of the Steelers games most represent potential stumbling blocks. Newcastle should be the easiest on paper given their ever shrinking roster, but a win in Whitely Bay is unlikely to come easy and despite early season results Dundee are much improved and Hull are kept Sheffield on their toes all season.  An away trip to Nottingham is always a tough task, particularly the night after playing the Giants in Belfast while Braehead have proven they can take points off the big boys, so the three games with them are likely to provide a challenge.

Belfast look to have the easiest finish to the season playing both Newcastle and Edinburgh twice.  In fact other than the two games with Sheffield have just two games against teams in the top half, Coventry and Nottingham both away on the last weekend of the season. If things come down to the final weekend it could be a tough ask for the Giants. Giants also have the disadvantage of having just 4 or their remaining 11 games at home.

Cardiff have a mixed set of games. While two trips to Edinburgh and one to Newcastle should see points in the bag, they also play Nottingham, Coventry and Sheffield twice. What could be of advantage to the Devils, is unlike the Giants, most of these big games are at home, a place where Cardiff are notoriously difficult to beat. And if things come down to the last weekend of the season, a final game against Edinburgh means almost certain 2 points for the Devils, while the Steelers and Giants have the much tougher games against Braehead and Coventry.

So who do I think will win?  I’m going to stick with my pre-season prediction of Belfast. I think they may drop a couple of points against the Steelers, and while they have a tough last weekend, I don’t see them dropping any more points (particularly against the Panthers if the Steelers are still in with a chance of winning the that last weekend, Green to start in goal for Nottingham anyone?).  Sheffield and Cardiff have a tougher set of games and I think both will drop a few points, just enough for Belfast to win the league, but there could end up being no more than a couple of points separating all three at the end of the season.  The big games are where the top three play each other, and a point for an overtime loss could be crucial in deciding where the title goes.

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