FC Hockey Media‘s Noel Gillespie casts an analytical eye on this weekend’s home double header against The Coventry Blaze…
“It’s a, It’s a, It’s a, It’s a goa…” Oh hey, didn’t see you there. I suppose we’d better get cracking. We’ve three more trophies to win.
The Belfast Giants will try to put out a second fire in less than a week on Friday and Saturday night, as they welcome the Coventry Blaze for a St. Patrick’s Day double-header in Belfast. The Blaze are battling to qualify for the end of season playoff tournament, whilst the Giants look to refocus on their league title campaign five days after claiming the 2019 Challenge Cup in a pulsating final in Cardiff.
The Playoff Race
The Blaze come into their weekend in Belfast sitting outside playoff qualification, currently level on 53 points with the Manchester Storm in ninth place. They hold two games in hand over Manchester, but two defeats in Belfast could give the Blaze a tough mountain to climb from their remaining six fixtures after Saturday night. They still have to play the Cardiff Devils and another game against the Giants, not to mention their games against playoff rivals the Fife Flyers, the Dundee Stars, and a game on the last weekend of the season against the Storm.
No one team is putting a run together to secure their place in the playoffs at the moment. Over the last ten games, the Blaze have won five and lost five, matching the Sheffield Steeler’s pace of 5-5 and bettering Manchester by two points, the Storm going 4-6 in that time. The Flyers also went 4-6 in their last ten games, with the Dundee Stars hitting a rough patch in only winning two of their last ten games. They are still only three points behind the Blaze and the Storm, but have a game in hand on the Manchester side.
Style of Play
The Blaze like to get the puck to the forwards quickly on the breakout. One breakout that the Blaze seem to use under pressure is for the right defenceman to make a pass to the forward on the right boards just before the blueline, who will then pass or tip the puck into the neutral zone for the other two forwards to skate on to at speed crossing into the offensive zone. If the Giants play their aggressive forechecking game this could be one the Blaze run with to break up that pressure. Ivan Puzic will also try to join the rush if the opportunity presents itself.
The powerplay tends to look to move to the right side of the ice on their zone entry, and set up in a 1-3-1 formation. From there, they like to make a pass from the half-wall to the weak side of the ice for a shot, either as they enter the zone or once they have set themselves up. If that is cut off they can move the puck around with Thom Flodqvist on the half-wall and Ben Lake moving to the strong side of the ice in front of the net as required to provide an option for the puck carrier. The top powerplay unit rounds out with Nicolai Bryhnisveen on the point, Tim Crowder waiting for the left circle shot, and Shawn Pauly in the high slot.
Defensively the Blaze will try to send two forecheckers into the zone to compete for the puck, but if there is no chance of gaining possession they will look to drop back into a wide 1-2-2 with the middle two forwards staying only slightly higher than the defencemen, positioned towards the boards, almost for a 1-4 look. The penalty kill looks for a 1-3 set-up, with one forward pressing up front and the other three players trying to hold the blueline.
The defence has been the major cause for concern for the Blaze this year, as they have conceded an average of 3.8 goals per game in the league, and it’s not hard to see why they are near the foot of the table when comparatively they score an average of 3.5 goals per game. Coventry have several defencemen who are willing to shoot the puck, with Bryhnisveen and Chris Joyaux the healthy defencemen shooting when the opportunity presents itself.
The Blaze are currently undermanned on the blueline with the injury to Justin Hache, and have mostly gone with a five man rotation on defence in that time. If Hache is back for the double-header it will be a big boost for the team, otherwise they may be in for a long weekend against a typically aggressive Giants forecheck.
Danny Stewart seems to like moving players up and down the line-up, with Flodqvist the latest player to get a look on the top line alongside Nikiforuk and Lake in an effort to get more consistent chemistry. Kevin Morris joined Crowder and Shawn Pauly against the MK Lightning, and Morris has also moved elsewhere in other games with Ross Venus able to move up and take a shift on the second line.
Ben Lake sits two points clear of Darcy Murphy in overall league points, with the two players sitting first and second in the scoring charts. Both have scored most of their points at even strength, with only fourteen and seventeen points coming on the powerplay respectively. It is difficult to take the puck away from Lake, and no matter how the Blaze are playing he can step up for a goal to change the momentum of the game.
Alex Nikiforuk plays mostly on the second line for the Blaze and has 64 points on the season, and Tim Crowder completes the Blaze’s set of three players in the top ten in league scoring with 63 points. Flodqvist is also a player in form, a skilful winger who seems to have created a dynamic option with Lake and Nikiforuk when moved there during the recent game against Milton Keynes. Goalscoring is not an issue for the Blaze, and they can light up a team on their night. On the back-end, Bryhnisveen will carry the offensive load for the team with Hache’s injury.
The Blaze have been short-handed for some time, with Jake Hansen sustaining an injury in Coventry’s game against Fife on 08th December, and Justin Hache being unavailable since 24th February, also injured against the Flyers.
The Blaze are struggling to get the 100% combined powerplay and penalty kill mark that many teams like to reach this season. Their powerplay is running at 16.73% on the campaign, with their penalty kill in last place at 70.83%, a full 7.27% behind the next team Dundee.
Lake – Pauly – Crowder
Morris – Nikiforuk – Flodqvist
Venus – Lawrence – Ferrara
Florian – Forbes
Bryhnisveen – Joyaux
Puzic – Clements
The Title Race
The Giants currently sit four points behind the Cardiff Devils, and can ill afford any slip ups in their last seven games. The Devils have a tricky weekend travelling to playoff hopefuls Sheffield before returning home to face Guildford, who still have an outside chance of reaching third place and a potential European trip should Belfast or Cardiff win the playoff championship. Cardiff have three home and four away games left, and after this weekend still have to play the Glasgow Clan twice, who are trying to hang onto that insurance European spot. There are battles all over the league this year, and every game will have meaning running into the end of the season.
The Challenge Cup final saw the second game after returning from injury from Patrick Dwyer, and he showed his class by slotting in to the line-up like he hadn’t missed a day for the most part. Darcy Murphy was kept relatively quiet in the final, so he will be itching to get scoring again. He has already scored a coast-to-coast goal against the Blaze, so they will be wary of him, but the Blaze will be faced by a plethora of point-scoring, with Jordan Smotherman confirming the Giants’ depth on Sunday by scoring the Challenge Cup winning goal from the third line. If the Blaze bring five defencemen, the Giants will look to play a physical forechecking game to wear the Blaze down over the two nights.
The Challenge Cup trophy will be in the building, but the Giants can enjoy that win again at the end of the season. The Blaze will be playing playoff hockey this weekend. If the Giants are to catch Cardiff, they will have to overcome any Challenge Cup hangover and match Coventry’s intensity. Yet another two game series loaded with opportunity and peril.
We go again.
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Words: Noel Gillespie
Images: Coventry Blaze