The Whiteboard: Find A Way

FC Hockey Media’s Noel Gillespie breaks down a thrilling climax to the EIHL’s regular season- which is going right to the wire at both ends of the table.

It should have been over.

The Belfast Giants and the Cardiff Devils both went into this past weekend knowing that any loss could hand the 2018/19 Elite League trophy to their title nemesis across the Irish Sea.

In many other years the league table has been wrapped up by now, with fewer teams fighting to get into the playoffs this late into the season. The race to find a way into the top eight is either done and dusted with the league champions crowned, or there are a handful of games left that can affect the final playoff positions in the table.

Belfast Giants v Sheffield Steelers - EIHL
Press Eye – Belfast – Northern Ireland – 24th March 2019 – Photo by William Cherry/Presseye Belfast Giants’ Jordan Smotherman scoring against the Sheffield Steelers during Sundays Elite Ice Hockey League game at the SSE arena ,Belfast. Photo by William Cherry/Presseye

Not so this year, as we are in the crucible of one of the tightest Elite League title races yet, combined with one of the most open playoff qualification battles the league has seen amongst a number of playoff contending teams.

The title and playoff races have been intertwined running into the final weeks of the season, with results simultaneously affecting both ends of the table as both the Giants and the Devils have run a gauntlet of teams vying for the last available post-season slots.

The Title Race

Belfast Giants Fixtures
08/03/19: Belfast Giants 5 – 4 Glasgow Clan

15/03/19: Belfast Giants 4 – 1 Coventry Blaze
16/03/19: Belfast Giants 2 – 1 Coventry Blaze
22/03/19: Manchester Storm 5 – 2 Belfast Giants
24/03/19: Belfast Giants 5 – 1 Sheffield Steelers
27/03/19: Coventry Blaze – Belfast Giants
29/03/19: Belfast Giants – Fife Flyers
30/03/19: Belfast Giants – Dundee Stars

Cardiff Devils Fixtures
07/03/19: Fife Flyers 2 – 4 Cardiff Devils
08/03/19: Cardiff Devils 2 – 0 Guildford Flames
16/03/19: Sheffield Steelers 5 – 4 Cardiff Devils
17/03/19: Cardiff Devils 2 – 0 Glasgow Clan
20/03/19: Glasgow Clan 2 – 4 Cardiff Devils
23/03/19: Cardiff Devils 4 – 0 Manchester Storm
24/03/19: Dundee Stars 3 – 1 Cardiff Devils
30/03/19: Cardiff Devils – MK Lightning
31/03/19: Coventry Blaze – Cardiff Devils

The Giants blinked first this past Friday night, losing 5-2 to the Manchester Storm in a frustrating night for the Giants against a Storm team who had won five and lost five of their last ten games. Resignation began to set in for the Giants’ fan base, with the feeling that the air brakes were finally being applied to the runaway rollercoaster that has been the tumultuous 2018/19 Elite League campaign.

Belfast Giants v Cardiff Devils - EIHL
Press Eye – Belfast – Northern Ireland – 23rd February 2019 – Photo by William Cherry/Presseye Belfast Giants’ Dustin Johner with Cardiff Devils’ Ben Bowns during Saturday nights Elite Ice Hockey League game at the SSE Arena, Belfast. Photo by William Cherry/Presseye

Step up the Dundee Stars. Whilst the Giants were dispatching the Sheffield Steelers in Belfast to keep their title hopes alive on Sunday, the Devils had made the long trip from Cardiff to Dundee to face the Stars.

And they lost.

Dundee were always going to be a dangerous opponent on the night given Cardiff’s travel itinerary and the fact that a loss for Dundee would have all but ended their own chances of playoff qualification, but it was unexpected and has prolonged the title chase into the final week of the season.

The Giants head into Wednesday’s clash against the Coventry Blaze with their opponents needing three points from their three remaining games to be sure of knocking Dundee out of the running, and four points to guarantee finishing above the Storm. The Giants must find a way to win on Wednesday not only for their own title ambitions, but to try to ensure that Coventry’s last game against Cardiff is also meaningful for the Blaze.

Belfast Giants v Coventry Blaze - EIHL
Press Eye – Belfast – Northern Ireland – 16th March 2019 – Photo by William Cherry/Presseye Belfast Giants’ Patrick Dwyer celebrates scoring against Coventry Blaze during Saturday nights Elite Ice Hockey League game at the SSE Arena, Belfast. Photo by William Cherry/Presseye

If the Blaze are safely in a playoff position come Sunday the Devils may have an easier time of getting that last win. Coventry will want to beat Cardiff regardless of league position, and they will want to stay in playoff mode to be at their best for any potential quarter-final opponent, but the carrot of looking up at that last playoff spot would see Coventry giving everything, setting up a potential barn burner of a final league game to confirm both the champions and the playoff qualifiers.

The Giants’ title aspirations lie in tying the Devils on points and surpassing them on regulation wins, this being the first decider of league positions if two teams are tied on points. At present, the Devils have 37 regulation wins with the Giants on 36. The Giants need to find their way to two regulation wins to draw level with the Devils if Cardiff do lose one game in regulation.

For the Devils, it is simple; win two hockey games.

The Playoff Race

Coventry Blaze – Belfast Giants

Milton Keynes Lightning v Manchester Storm

Belfast Giants v Dundee Stars

Manchester Storm v Coventry Blaze

Coventry Blaze v Cardiff Devils

Guildford Flames v Dundee Stars

The Storm play the Milton Keynes Lightning on Friday night, the only team mathematically eliminated from the playoff picture, who are playing out their last games in the Elite League before joining the newly formed second tier National League. The Storm then skate into the Coventry Skydome for their massive clash with the Blaze on Saturday night. If Coventry have lost to Belfast, and the Storm manage to beat the
Lightning, then a win for the Storm against the Blaze would qualify them for the post-season, with the Storm having 61 points to the Blaze’s 58.

If the Storm first beat the Lightning and then the Blaze in overtime after a Belfast win on Wednesday they will have also qualified, as they would have either 20 or 21 regulation wins depending on the Lightning result. Coventry would lose out even if they did beat Cardiff, as they could only tie the Storm on 61 points, but they could only have a maximum of 18 regulation wins. Milton Keynes beating Manchester on Friday would keep the race alive should the Storm then beat the Blaze, as then the Blaze could still
leapfrog Manchester with a win over the Devils.

Belfast Giants v Cardiff Devils - EIHL
Press Eye – Belfast – Northern Ireland – 23rd February 2019 – Photo by William Cherry/Presseye Belfast Giants’ Blair Riley celebrates scoring against the Cardiff Devils during Saturday nights Elite Ice Hockey League game at the SSE Arena, Belfast. Photo by William Cherry/Presseye

Dundee meet the Giants on Saturday and the Guildford Flames on Sunday in their last two games of the season. As it stands, Dundee must win both of these games to qualify for the playoffs. Losing to Belfast would end their chances of qualification, as either Coventry or Manchester will pass the 58 point threshold in their game on Saturday, and Dundee can only reach 58 points with one win. For Dundee to qualify, they must win their two games in regulation, the Storm must lose one game in regulation, and the
Blaze can only win one of their three games in overtime. The second tie-breaker, overall wins, is also in Coventry’s favour with 25 wins to Dundee’s 22.

The 2018/19 Elite League has been exciting at both ends of the table, and at least one of the races must go to the last day of the season. The rollercoaster is coming to the end of it’s run, but there are still twists and turns to come before the train trundles back into the station and everyone can get off, shake the legs out and lower the heart rates.
Until the playoffs a week later, at least.

Whatever happens this weekend, both teams at the top of the league would make worthy champions.

May the best team win.

But let’s find a way.

Words: Noel Gillespie
Images: William Cherry / PressEye

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