Please be aware that there might be a recent spoiler in this one, though you will likely know the result by now anyway. It was far from certain for the most part, but a late push claimed the win for the eventual victor.
Of course I’m talking about the NHL’s showpiece New Year’s Day event, the 2020 NHL Winter Classic Pig Racing Tournament, won on the line by the one and only Ro-Ham Josi.
What, you thought I was talking about the hockey at the 2020 NHL Winter Classic? No no, the big news is that an inaugural pig racing tournament took place for some reason alongside the game between the Dallas Stars and the Nashville Predators. Ro-Ham Josi bested luminaries such as Gabriel Landes-Hog, Porka Rinne and Andrew Hogliano over the course of a round of heats and the final.
This is not one of my satire pieces.
I don’t think I can go to a hockey game again without this happening during the period breaks. Move the “best seats in the SSE Arena” to a box and the room is right there.
Ryan Sow-ney? Paul Swine-dle-Wurst? Bobby Farn-Ham???
Cardiff Bay’s Charles Piglet.
Charles Porkor… Okay, okay, the hockey.
The Belfast Giants hold a 4-2 record so far over the festive period after their win against the Dundee Stars this past Thursday. This weekend they face two home games against a Coventry Blaze side who have consistently picked up points of late with a 5-2-3 record in their last 10 games. Two overtime losses to the Nottingham Panthers were sandwiched by two double-headers against the Guildford Flames and Cardiff Devils over Christmas and New Year, with both of those being split one game apiece.
The Blaze have had no trouble in putting the puck in the net, scoring the second highest number of league goals so far behind the Sheffield Steelers and matching the Yorkshire side in the points scoring list, with three players currently sitting in the league’s top ten. Thwarting any potential title push has been Coventry’s defensive record, as they have conceded the second most number of goals behind the Dundee Stars. prompting a mid-December defensive switch with the signing of import goaltender CJ Motte.
The Blaze have three quick lines that can move the puck with speed up ice. They like their defencemen to use a breakout pass to a winger at the half-wall, who can carry the puck or pass to his linemates as the situation demands. The centre or second winger will likely be skating already to give a stretch pass option, with the Blaze often using their two wingers in tandem on rushes. Dillon Eichstadt has the stickhandling skill to jump into the play if the pass to the wing is blocked off.
Defensively the Blaze use a fairly passive rotating 2-1-2 forecheck in the offensive zone, which moves back to a 2-3 neutral zone forecheck at the blueline against the rush. Once the game moves into their defensive zone the Blaze use a man-to-man defensive system, with their wingers both looking to pick up the opposition’s defencemen quickly.
This also means the wingers can be high in the zone if Coventry regain possession. The Blaze have a similar set up to the Dundee Stars in that regard, so the Giants must be aware of that stretch pass at all times. The centres will also look to skate for a pass if able, but they are less likely to be the highest player in the zone to receive that pass.
Coventry’s powerplay sits 3rd in the league at a 21.19% success rate. The initial puck carrier likes to drop the puck to an attacking Charles Corcoran on the top powerplay’s breakout, in the same way the Giants used Patrick Wronka on the PP. The Giants have been aggressive against this type of breakout this season, so expect to see the likes of Liam Reddox or Bobby Farnham trying to flush out the puck carrier and then block the drop pass to stop Corcoran from entering the Giants’ zone at speed, and force the puck carrier into the Giants’ neutral zone check.
Once in the zone, the Blaze like to set up an overload on the right circle. Corcoran and Janne Laakkonen will switch positions between the half-wall and behind the net to try to create chances or make space to drive the net themselves. Evan Bloodoff completes the triangle in front of the net, and will also move higher in the slot or to the side of the net to create a passing option if the puck is behind the goal line. Luke Ferrara mans the left circle on his off-wing, and Justin Haché patrols the point in Schiestel’s absence.
The second powerplay forms up in a similar 1-3-1 formation, with typically John Curran shooting from the left circle on his off off-wing, Andrew Johnston the danger man on the right circle, Dillon Eichstadt on point, Ross Venus as the net presence and Matt Pohlkamp as a more traditional bumper in the slot.
Coventry’s penalty kill has not been as successful, killing 78.9% of their opposition’s powerplays. They typically use a 1-1-2 forecheck to disrupt their opponents’ rush into their defensive zone. Something the Giants must be aware of is short-handed breakaways, as the Blaze are second only to Sheffield in league play with seven short-handed goals. Corcoran is tied with Nottingham’s Ollie Betteridge at the top of that list with three short-handed goals on the season.
Charles Corcoran played for Brown University in the inaugural Friendship Four, and has gone on to star in the Elite League since his college career ended. He has 98 points in 100 games since joining the Dundee Stars in 2018, and is on course to surpass his 52 league points amassed with Dundee in 2018/19. He drives play for his line, and is an important cog in the Blaze’s powerplay.
Andrew Johnston is currently on an eight game point streak, which includes several multi-point games. His line with Laakkonen and Luke Ferrara has been tearing up the league, and he joins Ferrara and Corcoran as one of the top ten point scorers in the league. The Giants will have to be aware of Johnston trailing the play late into the slot, which is how he has scored the majority of his goals.
Laakkonen would be nearer the top of the points list too if he had not missed five league games this season, contributing 23 points in 25 contests, and should be well known to Belfast hockey fans after starring for GKS Katowice in both rounds of last season’s Continental Cup. He topped the points charts in the semi-final round with five points and continued that form in the final round, only being outscored by teammate Jesse Rohtla and adding another five points. Speed, skill, passing, hockey sense, Laakkonen is the playmaking catalyst that makes his line so dangerous, and the Giants will have to be aware of where he is on the ice at all times.
Luke Ferrara is having a career year playing alongside Johnston and Laakkonen, and currently tops the league’s goalscoring chart with 20 goals.
Bloodoff 10 – Corchoran 88 – Curran 41
Laakkonen 62 – Johnston 61 – Ferrara 19
Broll 15* – Venus 59 – M Pohlkamp 11
Lawrence 18 – – Forbes 14
Schiestel 44** – Hamonic 22
Eichstadt 20 – C Pohlkamp 21
Haché 28 – Clements 58
* David Broll has been given a leave of absence due to a family bereavement and will not be available in Belfast. He had been missing from the line-up through injury, with Dillon Lawrence moving to the third line while he has been unavailable.
** Drew Schiestel has been unable to take to the ice since blocking a Brett Ferguson shot in the Blaze’s 8-3 victory over the Guildford Flames. There has been no confirmation at time of writing if he will be available for the Belfast trip. Haché has taken Schiestel’s place alongside Justin Hamonic is his absence, with Alex Forbes helping out on defence.
The Giants have put a good run of results together lately, going 7-3 in their last 10 games. They played well offensively against Dundee before New Year’s Eve, but just couldn’t defend the Star’s speedy counter-attack offence on the night. They rectified that this past Thursday, grinding out a 3-2 win in Dundee. The forward lines have settled down and are building chemistry, something that has been difficult to find so far this season.
Elgin Pearce has been a real catalyst for the Giants since arriving from the Dundee Stars at the same time as Rickard Palmberg. In the same way that Jake Hansen helped Nottingham become a more direct team earlier this season, Pearce has pretty much taken all of his shots from inside the slot area, something the Giants were not always doing before. The statistics back up the eye test, as since the roster changes were made the Giants have been getting to the dangerous areas around the net more consistently.
Curtis Hamilton has benefited from finding chemistry with Palmberg and Pearce. Previously he went seven games without a point from 09th November against Nottingham, until he scored against Dundee on 01st December. Three points in five games followed, but since Pearce joined the team Hamilton has collected eight points in six games. Six of these points have involved Pearce in some way, with Palmberg involved in four of them. The line has a good mix of a physical player, a skilled forward and a scorer, and it has been working well barring the blip against Dundee.
Hamilton 70 – Palmberg 91 – Pearce 15
Farnham 46 – Ward 24 – Reddox 85
Smotherman 14 – Lake 9 – Goodwin 64
Hook 8 – – Long 89
Leonard 10 – Garside 7
Lowney 55 – Mullen 2*
Swindlehurst 23 – Pelech 17
* Kevin Raine has not played since leaving the game against Sheffield on 06th December. Patrick Mullen missed the game in Dundee last Thursday.
The Giants have dropped points to the teams looking to wrest the Elite League title from their trophy cabinet over Christmas, meaning they simply must win both games this weekend. Meanwhile the Blaze have been picking up points, but need to pick up wins if they want to try and catch the leading pack. The two sides meet at 7pm this Saturday and 5pm on Sunday, good seats are still available for what should be two cracking games of hockey.