FC Hockey Media’s Noel Gillespie previews Group C of the Champions Hockey League as the Belfast Giants take their first steps in the competition.
We’re on our way again.
How do we get there? Actually, happy to say I’m not sure this time around. I’m still working on it.
We’ve had a fairly pleasant summer in Northern Ireland, and the last thing on the mind has been hockey.
Well, maybe the odd sly grin amongst the weddings, music festivals and beer gardens, remembering who the reigning and defending Elite League Champions are.
But now pre-season games have come and gone, new jerseys are arriving, and a largely new group of Giants are ready to get back into playing meaningful games. And the first competitive games are pretty meaningful for the club.
The Belfast Giants venture into the Champions Hockey League for the first time on 29th August 2019 since the current format of the competition was inaugurated in 2014. The Giants qualified as runners-up to Arlan Kokshetau in the Continental Cup last season, the Kahzak team being ineligible to enter the competition. They rubber stamped their right to be selected to compete by winning the league anyway, with the second place Cardiff Devils securing qualification alongside Belfast.
The Giants begin their campaign with two home games against Bílí Tygři Liberec and Augsburger Panther on 29th and 31st August respectively, before embarking on a road trip to Czechia and Germany for the return fixtures. They then take on Swedish side Luleå HF in a home and home series to complete the group stage of the competition, with the top two teams once all games have been played advancing to the round of sixteen.
Group C Schedule
29/08/19: Luleå HF vs. Augsburger Panther
29/08/19: Belfast Giants vs. Bílí Tygři Liberec
31/08/19: Luleå HF vs. Bílí Tygři Liberec
31/08/19: Belfast Giants vs. Augsburger Panther
05/09/19: Bílí Tygři Liberec vs. Belfast Giants
06/09/19: Augsburger Panther vs. Luleå HF
08/09/19: Bílí Tygři Liberec vs. Luleå HF
08/09/19: Augsburger Panther vs. Belfast Giants
08/10/19: Augsburger Panther vs. Bílí Tygři Liberec
08/10/19: Belfast Giants vs. Luleå HF
15/10/19: Luleå HF vs. Belfast Giants
16/10/19: Augsburger Panther vs. Bílí Tygři Liberec
Bílí Tygři Liberec
Liberec are entering the Champions Hockey League for the fifth time, after qualifying by winning the Czech Extraliga regular season ahead of Oceláři Třinec. Třinec returned the favour in the Extraliga Playoffs, where they won the final two games to take the title by four games to two, avenging their previous season’s Playoff Final loss to Kometa Brno in the process.
The 2017/18 Champions Hockey League gives an indicator of Liberec’s potential, being their most successful season in the competition. The Extraliga team knocked out the previous year’s champions Frolunda, before moving past the Zurich Lions to reach the CHL semi-finals. There they were beaten 7-2 over two legs by the Vaxjo Lakers, after tying the first leg 1-1.
Style of Play
Liberec like to skate from behind their net with passing options either side of the puck carrier on their controlled breakouts. A second forward will be available through centre ice, and the final forward will skate along the opposition’s blueline to provide a stretch pass option. Liberec can move the puck quickly to gain speed through the neutral zone, or pass the puck past the opposition forecheck to the high forward, who can move on goal or wait for his linemates to gain the offensive zone with speed to back up the defence.
Liberec typically use a 1-2-2 forecheck in the offensive zone, with the first forward checking and the remaining two forwards rotating in one at a time if necessary, but looking to move back into the neutral zone in their 1-2-2 shape. They will use two forecheckers behind the opponent’s net, but they seem to move into their defensive stance quite quickly.
The stretch pass option carries into Liberec’s defensive zone work, where the weak side winger will look to break up ice as soon as Liberec regain the puck.
The powerplay likes to break out in a similar fashion to their even strength rushes. Ladislav Šmíd quarterbacks the first powerplay, controlling the rush with centre Michal Bulir providing the passing option on the left, and Libor Hudáček skating on the right. They often have the same centre-ice option and skater patrolling the far blueline as their 5-on-5 play.
Once in the offensive zone, the powerplay sets up in a 1-3-1 formation similar to Coach Adam Keefe’s setup last year, with Michal Birner playing Kyle Baun’s role around the net, moving to either side to provide passing options. Šmíd plays the point, Hudáček takes the Patrick Dwyer role on the left wing half-boards, and Bulír sits in the slot. Liberec are not shy about firing one-timers from their three high players, Šmíd, Hudáček and Tomas Filippi, from his spot on the right circle.
The penalty kill had a fairly passive forecheck in their game against the Finnish Liiga’s KooKoo, skating back into a 1-3 setup in the neutral zone. Against the faster KHL side Amur Khabarovsk they played a more aggressive game in general on the forecheck, using a 1-1-2 forecheck and moving back to a 2-2 neutral zone position.
Liberec will also try and break a forward into the neutral zone whenever they can on the penalty kill, usually as soon as they win a defensive zone faceoff.
Ladislav Šmíd is the player in the Liberec squad most likely recognised by Giants fans, spending parts of eight seasons with the Edmonton Oilers before being traded across enemy lines in the Battle of Alberta to spend parts of four seasons with the Calgary Flames. The other piece in that trade going to Calgary? Olivier Roy, goaltender for Augsburger Panther. Going to the Oilers were Roman Horak, now with Liam Reddox’s former club the Vaxjo Lakers, and Laurent Brossoit, getting game time last year with the Winnipeg Jets. Calgary fans in Belfast can maybe reminisce on getting one over on Edmonton with that trade this weekend.
Šmíd runs Liberec’s top powerplay unit, and has a powerful one-timer which will cause problems. He is comfortable skating the puck out of trouble as well, and will eat minutes for the Czechs at 5-on-5. Containing him will be difficult, but it could be key for other teams looking to take the game to Liberec.
In saying that, Liberec have another smooth skating defenceman in Lukas Derner who will likely get a lot of minutes, playing on the second powerplay and first penalty killing units. He also has a solid shot, and opposing teams need to be wary of his offensive play.
Libor Hudáček is an energetic right winger who also has a dangerous snipe. He can dangle at speed, and will cause problems for Liberec’s opponents in the CHL.
Liberec have added two players with North American experience in recent weeks, with Daniel Bukac joining on defence from the Niagra Ice Dogs of the OHL, and Adam Musil bolstering the forward pack after a solid WHL career and two full seasons with the San Antonio Rampage.
Long-time NHL back-up Justin Peters has recently joined Liberec, and will battle for the starter position with the incumbent Marek Schwartz, who himself spent three years in the St. Louis Blues organisation. Most of Peters’ success came with the Carolina Hurricanes before they were a bunch of jerks, whereas Schwartz spent much of his time in the AHL, making six appearances with St. Louis. Peters spent last season with Extraliga rivals Piráti Chomutov, but was unable to help the team avoid relegation to the second tier of Czech hockey.
Birner 16- Bulír 88 – Hudácek 79
Marosz 94 – Filippi 21 – Lenc 25
Krenželok 29 – Jelínek 26 – Zachar 31
Vlach 53 – Musil –* – Ordoš 45
Spacek 19 Valsky 71
Šmíd 5 – Hanousek 67
Derner 17 – Knot 3
Havelin 77 – Graborenko 70*
Justin Peters 35
Marek Schwartz 40
*I’ve had two lists of player numbers, and none of them translate to the CHL numbers, or what I have been watching in tandem with Liberec’s own game sheets. A big, “subject to change”, on anyone outside the top six on jersey numbers.
Liberec’s top two lines have a lot of chemistry that can create offence. Beyond that they have juggled the players used in the games I have seen, with Krenželok and Vlach the only two players in the bottom six to keep their places. Spacek and Valsky are more experienced and may replace Zachar and Ordoš, though the latter looks like a good energy forward. Musil is a solid 4th line choice at centre.
Augsburger Panther are one of the oldest sides active in the Deutschen Eishockey Liga. Like the Giants they are entering the Champions Hockey League for the first time, qualifying by finishing third in the 2018/19 DEL regular season standings. The top four teams in the regular season contested the semi-finals of the DEL Playoffs last season, with Augsburger losing out in Game 7 against eventual playoff runners-up Red Bull Munich.
Style of Play
The Panthers prefer to break down the left side of the ice if they can, with a quick forward pass from their mostly left-handed defencemen after moving the puck from D-D to open up space. They can adjust to move the puck down the right side, but from what I have seen they tend to have a less controlled breakout on the right side of the ice.
The defence don’t typically skate the puck up ice, preferring to move the puck to a winger on the boards at their own blueline. The winger will either be skating themselves, or if they are static they will bump the puck to the centre who will skate up ice.
An adjustment they can make is for the left side winger to move up over the red line before receiving the puck, so that the defenceman’s pass can be tipped or dumped into the zone for the other two forwards to chase.
The top line seems to have a tendency to criss-cross at the blueline if they can, to get left winger Jaroslav Hafenrichter onto his off-wing to generate a shooting chance.
In the offensive zone, the forwards will cycle the puck to create chances, but will move the puck back for a point shot quite quickly. Both Patrick McNeill and Simon Sezemsky have powerful shots that will trouble opposing netminders.
The powerplay will also look to a winger to carry the play up ice. The defenceman will look to a skating forward on the weak side of the ice, and they will either skate into the offensive zone and look for a pass to the two forwards on the strong side of the rush, or can dump the puck where the same two forwards will chase to retain possession.
Once in the offensive zone Augsburger will try and move the puck to the boards to overload the right side of the ice with four players, and try to work an opportunity. If they can’t create anything they move the puck to the weak side point for a one-timer, where again McNeill and Sezemsky are dangerous.
The Panthers like to engage an aggressive 2-1-2 forecheck in most situations, pushing two players forward to pressure the puck carrier and try to turnover the puck. The third forward remains high in the offensive zone to support the forecheckers, or defend any break accordingly.
This set-up also continues into the neutral zone if the opposition break through the forecheck. When the Panthers aren’t quick enough to put this forecheck pressure in place, or they are on a line change, they drop back into a 1-4 position in the neutral zone to defend the rush.
The Panthers have used both a 1-3 penalty kill neutral zone and a more aggressive 2-2 PK. I have also seen them move back with all four penalty killers sitting on their blueline more than once. In their own zone they are generally aggressive in putting pressure on the puck carrier.
Giants fans may be familiar with Jaroslav Hafenrichter, the former Fischtown Pinguin who faced the Giants in Bremerhaven during the 2014/15 Continental Cup quarter-final. He now plays on the top line for the Panthers, and has pace and a dangerous release on his shot which Augsburger’s opponents must be wary of.
Drew LeBlanc begins his fifth season at the club, centring the first line alongside Hafenrichter and Mitch Callahan. He was the Panthers’ top scorer in the DEL playoffs last year with ten points, and only trailed the departed Matt White by four points in league scoring on 45 points.
Patrick McNeill is an offensive defenseman with a searing shot who will jump into the play when the opportunity presents itself.
Matt Fraser, the former Dallas Star, Boston Bruin and Edmonton Oiler, is starting his second season with Augsburger, after finishing third in team scoring last year. He plays on the nominal third line for the Panthers, and gets significant time on the powerplay.
Hafenrichter 77 – LeBlanc 19 – Callahan 15
Schmölz 25 – Stieler 21 – Payerl 11
Holzmann 17 – Gill 29 – Fraser 27
Ullmann 47 – Mayenschein 41- Lambacher 63
TJ Trevelyan 24
Marco Sternheimer 6
Tölzer 13- Lamb 2
Haase 04 – McNeill 20
Valentine 22 – Sezemsky 93
Augsburger have a fairly balanced top nine group who can all score. Their supposed third line have been scoring for fun in pre-season. They are a physical team and won’t shy away from the dirty areas of the game.
The highest seeded club in the group is the 2018/19 Swedish Hockey League runners-up, Luleå HF. The inaugural champions of the CHL in it’s current format in 2014/15, Luleå have been in and out of the tournament since then, missing out on last year’s competition.
Their SHL regular season mirrored that of the Cardiff Devils last season, finishing on the same number of points as Färjestad BK and only losing out on topping the table on goal difference.
Luleå won their quarter-final series in the SHL playoffs against Liam Reddox’s Vaxjo Lakers by four games to one, before succumbing in the next round to eventual playoff champions and defending CHL champions Frölunda.
Style of Play
… And this is where my summer procrastination comes in. I haven’t had a chance to watch Luleå fully up to this point. Sorry. But it was sunny? There were gigs? Sorry. I will update this section at length before we play them.
Please see above. However, there has been some news around the team in the past few weeks.
Emil Larsson has had to undergo an operation which may see the Swedish International left winger sidelined for the CHL group stages, as he has been scheduled to make his return at the end of November.
Pittsburgh Penguins prospect Filip Hållander has joined Luleå on loan from Timra IK, who were relegated from the SHL last season. Hållander was drafted by the Penguins 58th overall in the 2018 NHL draft, and is ranked 11th by Penguins blog Pensburgh in their top 25 prospects under 25 rankings. His performance in Timra’s relegation playout is impressive, and he could be a strong addition pushing for more minutes than a two-way checking role by the time the Giants face Luleå in October.
The Belfast Giants had quite the successful season last year. After qualifying for the Champions Hockey League through the Continental Cup, the Giants added the Elite League title, the Erhardt Conference and the Challenge Cup trophies as their haul of silverware for the year. Belfast are the fifth team from the EIHL to enter the CHL, following Nottingham, Cardiff, Sheffield and the defunct Braehead into battle in Europe.
Something the Giants have looked to in their summer recruitment is European experience, with several of the new players having played at a high level in Europe.
That doesn’t necessarily translate to CHL experience, with only three of the new players having played in the competition itself; Liam Reddox’s 34 games with Vaxjo, Curtis Hamilton’s 7 games with the Finnish Liiga’s SaiPa, and Patryk Wronka’s 2 games with Orli Znojmo of the EBEL. Oddly enough, the only other player to have appeared in the CHL is… Lewis Hook, playing 2 games on loan to the Nottingham Panthers in 2014/15.
Style of Play
As with every team in this piece, tweaks will be made as the season goes on, but the Giants look to have evolved through the turnover in players to have more options tactically. Where last year two players would usually group on one side of the ice on rushes, with a weak side winger in support, the Giants seem to be looking for more stretch passes so far this pre-season alongside the grouped breaks, in a similar vein to Liberec. Patryk Wronka in particular seemed to be patrolling the opposition’s blueline at times in the games I’ve seen.
Last year’s powerplay breakout was often based on a defenceman skating up ice with four passing options skating with him. This has still been evident, but they have also tried a drop pass from a defenceman to Wronka on the breakout, allowing him to gain speed through the neutral zone and back up the defence for a successful zone entry.
Once they are set up, Patrick Mullen takes the point on the top powerplay, Wronka takes the left half-wall, Smotherman retains his right circle shot position, and two more from Reddox, Hamilton and Bobby Farnham round out the top unit.
The penalty kill has seemed to mirror Liberec’s, with one checker trying to disrupt the breakout, but falling back into a 1-3 neutral zone forecheck.
You might have noticed that I’ve mentioned Patrick Wronka a few times already. The wee wizard dazzled the Giants faithful in the Continental Cup for GKS Katowice, and he has already shown in pre-season action that he could do the same for the SSE faithful this season. Speed, skill, and a hockey brain that will sneak up ice on an opposition line change in a 3 vs. 3 public practice. Not only is he impressive offensively, but he works for the team, backchecking hard when necessary. If the Giants are to have success in the Champions Hockey League, Wronka and his burgeoning partnership with Ben Lake will be paramount in providing the offense that the Giants need to compete.
Patrick Mullen has been a very promising addition to Coach Keefe’s squad for the 2019/20 campaign. Mullen’s movement and awareness have been impressive to watch so far in the pre-season games at the SSE arena, he is a smooth skater who passes the puck beautifully. I am personally very excited to watch him play this season, and he will be key if the Giants are to unlock CHL defences.
Liam Reddox’s signing was a coup for Belfast, you don’t just sign SHL captains every day in the Elite League. His quality and experience could be invaluable for the Giants in their CHL games.
Shane Owen has starred for the Fife Flyers in recent years, and as much as it is a cliche, he may be the most important player for the Giants. Belfast are likely going to have to defend for a good portion of each game owing to the quality of opposition, but if Owen is in the form he has shown in the Elite League before, he should give the Giants a chance against whoever they are facing.
Hamilton 70 – Lake 09 – Wronka 95
Reddox 25 – Ward 24 – Farnham 46
Smotherman 14 – Dupuy 39 – Long 89
Hook 08 – Garside 07 – Morgan 21
Leonard 10 – Mullen 02
Forsberg 29- Raine 22
Swindlehurst 23 – Pelech 17
The Champions Hockey League is a fantastic opportunity for the Giants to test themselves against some of Europe’s best hockey teams. Realistically it will be difficult for the Giants to make much headway in the competition, but they have recruited a quality team with plenty of AHL and European experience. The likes of Reddox, Hamilton and Mullen will be important for that experience they bring, and if Belfast can weather the storm defensively that is likely to come each night, they have scorers who could steal the Giants points in the standings.
Luleå are probably favourites to win the group, and Liberec are likely the next best team expecting to qualify with them. The order of games may decide if the Giants can qualify to the next round of the CHL, as the Giants will need to do well in their first four games, especially against Liberec, and hope that Luleå take points off the other two teams in the group.
If Luleå have qualified by the time October comes around, the Giants may, may catch them at the right time and sneak a point against a depleted Swedish side. If not, they will have needed to bank points against Liberec and Augsberger, and hope the last games between those two teams go their way in the group.
Will they get through the group? Probably not.
But realism is no craic in sports.
And every team is on zero points right now.
It’s going to be a lot of fun finding out.
(1): Liberec information sourced from Bili Tygri Liberec’s website.
(2): Panthers information sourced from Augsburger Panther website.
(3) Addition information sourced from Elite Prospects.
(4) Games sourced from Liberec’s Youtube channel and Magenta Sport’s Dolomite Cup coverage.