FC Hockey Media‘s Noel Gillespie returns to KOTG with his take on a crucial weekend for the Belfast Giants, as the Sheffield Steelers cross the Irish Sea.
Okay, so full disclosure time here.
I attended a Steelers wedding in the summer.
It was… I mean. Being surrounded by…
It was a wonderful evening with some of the best people, including Nottingham Panthers, Cardiff Devils, Glasgow Clan and Coventry Blaze fans.
And a Giants fan masquerading as a Blaze fan. Hi Bonj.
Hockey’s much better when we can all get along.
But that was the summer. Friendships will be put on hold and rivalries resumed as the Sheffield Steelers skate into the SSE Arena this weekend to take on the Belfast Giants over two big games.
The Steelers arrive as the current leaders of the Elite League, with the Giants sitting in third place. Both teams suffered mixed fortunes last weekend, before which you might have heard the result of the mid-week game between the sides in Sheffield on the 27th November.
The teams go into this weekend with one fan base largely happy with how their season is going, whereas the other has been voicing concerns despite there still only being a four point gap between the two sides, with the Giants holding three games in hand.
Sheffield have had similar runs of league form to Belfast so far. Their last ten games saw three losses in a row against Guildford, Cardiff and Manchester, before splitting their next weekend between beating Coventry and losing to Glasgow. They won their next three games, culminating in the 5-0 blowout win over the Giants, before splitting last weekend’s games against Cardiff and Nottingham.
Style of Play
Sheffield’s breakout will regularly see a winger skate for a stretch pass as soon as the defenseman settles the puck, the Steelers having quality puck-moving defensemen on every line that can spring a breakway. If the quick pass is closed off, the winger moves to the boards to be able to offer a pass option near the blueline, aiming to bump the puck to the other two forwards skating through the neutral zone, or tip a pass into the offensive zone where those two forwards go to work forechecking to retrive the puck.
Another breakout option which seems to happen when Brendan Connolly is on the ice (don’t boo yet Giants fans, he’s been lights out this season), is the centre providing a static option on the wing in Sheffield’s end for a pass from the defenseman. Once he has the puck, he can cut to centre ice to start the rush, or make plays to the breaking forwards.
The Steelers prefer to use a 2-1-2 forecheck to regain possession for the most part, aggressively chasing pucks in the offensive zone. They have speed on every line to cycle players into the check and keep the pressure up for good portions of the game.
They are backed up by an equally aggressive defensive core, who regularly look to step up and make either a hit or a pokecheck at the edge of the neutral zone or at the blueline against the rush. Marek Trončinský and Aaron Brocklehurst in particular will try and step up and make hits, but most of the Steelers’ defence actively try and stop zone entries early.
Something that I’ve noticed teams doing against Sheffield to combat this is making quick plays just before the blueline to counter the Steelers’ jump, either a chip and chase to the half-boards or a criss-cross or passing play at the blueline. The Giants like to get behind the defence and forecheck themselves, so it will be interesting to see if Coach Aaron Fox uses his more defensive 1-2-2 neutral zone forecheck to counter the Giants’ offence.
The Steelers can change back into this 1-2-2 look once they’ve scored goals, and hit teams with their breakaway speed. They used this more often against the Nottingham Panthers last Sunday, so Sheffield’s growing injury list may help to decide how the Steelers approach the games in Belfast.
The powerplay sets up in a 1-3-1 formation, with it’s pieces subject to change due to injury troubles. Typically Ben O’Connor and Brocklehurst play the point on each powerplay unit, Eberle and Sandström play in the high slot, Dowd or Davies play the left wing, and two of DeLuca, Lemtyugov or Vallerand when fit set up for one-timers from the right wing. Armstrong and Connolly play the net front presence, with Connolly especially moving behind the net to retrieve pucks and make plays out into the slot.
Dowd 75* – Armstrong 90 – Lemtyugov 52
DeLuca 15 – Connolly 63 – Vallerand 88*
Eberle 10 – Meland 14 – Sandstrom 28
J Phillips 20 – Davies 19- Shudra 27
Kuukka 91 – Brocklehurst 2
D Phillips 13 – O’Connor 81
IR: Aaron Johnson 53, James Bettauer 42, Jonas Liwing 23, Rob Dowd 75, Marc Vallerand 88, John Armstrong 90.
The Steelers have suffered heavily on the injury front, with Aaron Johnson needing a second spell on the sidelines after re-injuring a finger against Glasgow. He might see a few testers on that injury when he comes back.
James Bettauer is reportedly also out of action for several weeks. Jonas Liwing was reported to be injured for six to eight weeks in October, so he may be close to returning. Both Eric Meland and Michael Davies have covered on the third pairing in recent games.
Up front, both Dowd and Vallerand came out of the line-up for their last game in Nottingham, making them a concern for the trip to Belfast. It remains to be seen who ices for their forward group, but some of Sheffield’s top scorers could be out of the line-up in Belfast. Mid-week signing Janne Kolehmainen should be available and has the pedigree to step in and play solid minutes immediately in relief.
Parity is evident throughout the league this year, and the Giants’ form confirms that. The Giants hold a respectable third in the table, but the manner of their play has seen concerns raised by both Coach Adam Keefe in interviews and the fan base in general, with Keefe shaking up the roster recently with the releases of Jesse Forsberg and Jean Dupuy.
A six league game winning streak in October was followed by a run of four losses. Beating Cardiff twice in the Viola Arena suggested a resurgence, but then came the Sheffield trip. The Giants split last weekend’s Scottish road trip against the Fife Flyers and Dundee Stars. They are 4-6 in their last ten games, but despite the ups and downs they are still keeping pace with the rest of the title contenders.
When you look at the story of last year’s season, the Giants were unbeaten in November in all but one Continental Cup game, against Katowice, but their December form was indifferent. The expectations for this Giants team were heightened by their performances in the Champions Hockey League, but it is fair to say that at times they haven’t risen to that standard. Comparing their league results with their rivals still makes pretty good reading:
Any of these six teams could put a championship winning season together, and Belfast are still as good as any of them on paper. If they reverse last season’s November form and have a good December, the Giants will have had a similar first half of the season to last year overall, and that turned out pretty well in the end.
There has been some fair criticism of how the team have performed at times. Goalscoring has been an issue, with the top scorer for the Giants, Curtis Hamilton, only 14th in league scoring at present. The next two Giants, Ben Lake and Bobby Farnham, are 30th and 31st in goals scored respectively. The Giants are creating chances, with the team taking the second most shots in the league in November (1), so if the Giants can keep creating at that level they will start to score goals. The Steelers have conceded the third most goals in league play, so this might be the weekend to re-ignite the Giants’ scoring.
Defensively, the first goal conceded in the Cardiff double-header comes to mind as an example of the defensive mistakes that are being made. All five Giants were positioned in the left half of the defensive zone, with the most central being at the face-off dot and no-one protecting the slot or a weak side play. Not the best way to defend Gleason Fournier.
Frustrating, and maybe a lapse in concentration in a team leading 3-0, but that has happened a few times over the season and cost the team points, and it nearly did again against Cardiff. Despite some leaky games the Giants have conceded the second fewest number of goals in the league, but the team can’t switch off like that throughout the next 120 minutes against the free-scoring Steelers.
Hamilton 70 – Lake 9 – Smotherman 14
Goodwin 64 – Wronka 95 – Morgan 21
Reddox 85 – Ward 24 – Farnham 46
Hook 8 – – Long 89
Leonard 10 – Raine 22
Lowney 5 – Mullen 2
Garside 7 – Swindlehurst 23
IR: Matt Pelech 17
The Giants’ line-up has been unsettled again with the injury to Matt Pelech in Sheffield. This past weekend there was less movement in the forward lines between the Fife and Dundee games, but there could be further changes while Keefe finds the best fit for new signings Ryan Lowney and David Goodwin. I wouldn’t mind giving the lines set out here an extended look though, to see if the Giants can build the chemistry that hasn’t always been evident through the team this season.
Any team with title aspirations would put themselves in a good position with a run of form right now, and both the Giants and Steelers could kickstart that this weekend.
I don’t see that happening, as I think the Giants and Steelers will likely split the points. Anything more for either team is a bonus, anything less would not be a disaster, but if the Giants do lose both tilts then their three games in hand could become pivotal if they are to stay in contention to defend their league title.
Both teams are striving to get better. Both need to keep pace with the title-chasing pack. Like last weekend’s always superb Friendship Four tournament, a cracking weekend of hockey awaits in Belfast. Don’t miss it.
(1): Sourced from The Cat’s Whiskers’ host Tina Taylor’s weekly EIHL charts on twitter.
Words: Noel Gillespie