Week 20 of Ice Chips already, doesn’t time fly during the hockey season in the same way it drags on over the summer!
You have to hand it to those Belfast Giants don’t you. There is no way they are going to give up their league title without one hellava fight and they proved it the best way they could over the week, posting three wins, including an absolutely crucial road win in the barn of leaders Nottingham Panthers.
Had Panthers taken both points on Saturday they would have ended the week six points clear of Giants but that gap is now only two points and it really is ‘game on’ for the remainder of the campaign.
Sheffield are still clinging on in there but are now seven points behind Panthers. Again, things could have been so different had Steelers taken the home points against Panthers on Sunday night but what a bounce back by Corey Neilson’s men as they did not dwell on their Giants home loss but regrouped superbly to win in Sheffield.
Cardiff continue to occupy fourth spot but it will interesting to see how the loss of goaltender Phil Osaer (off to Norway) affects them in the run in. As we write this ex Dundee Stars goaltender Chris Whitley has been announced as the new Devils cageman and the Welsh side will be hoping his knowledge of the game over here will help him settle quickly.
Fifth placed Coventry, with only two wins from their last nine games, will now have to start looking over their shoulders at the chasing pack with Dundee and Braehead especially looking to improve their current standing.
Stars had that blip in Fife on Saturday but managed to pick up a win over the same opposition the next night albeit after overtime, while Braehead were boosted by the presence of new bench coach Paul Gardner as they snapped a five-game losing run at home on Saturday and with the influx of a few new faces will be a team to watch out for in the coming weeks.
Fife, Edinburgh and Hull have six points splitting them right now but Flyers are still suffering from key injuries and need their full roster to keep their hold on the final Play-Off spot. Capitals had a great weekend with two wins and will hope to build on that while Hull are a team that needs a win badly to kick start them again as five losses in a row at this point in the season is not what the doctor ordered.
In the Gardiner Conference it is still very tight throughout with only six points separating leaders Braehead from bottom placed Hull, while in the Erhardt Conference it’s a mirror of the league standings with Nottingham two points in front of Belfast, who have a game in hand.
To the action now and we start with last Wednesday’s game between Belfast and Fife. An Odyssey debut for ex Braehead and Fife goaltender Garrett Zemlak and one he will remember with fondness as he posted a 19 shot shutout as Giants won comfortably 3-0 with a goal in each period.
Saturday night saw new Clan coach Paul Gardner in charge of the team against Hull Stingrays, two days after his arrival in Scotland to replace former player/coach Jordan Krestanovich. The new man had the desired effect as Clan picked up both points with their first home win in six; thanks to a shootout success and winning shot from Steve Birnstill after the teams had tied 1-1 in regulation and overtime. Shootouts are clearly not Stingrays favoured way to decide a game as they have no lost all eight they have been involved in this season.
Cardiff were forced to ice backup goaltender Joe Myers in their home game against Edinburgh following the departure of Phil Osaer earlier in the week and Capitals took full advantage of Myers’ lack of senior match experience to win 5-4 in overtime, with a penalty shot scored by Rene Jarolin in the 63rd minute being the winning strike.
Fife v Dundee saw the inform Stars brought down to earth with an almighty thud as Flyers won 5-0 with goaltender Bryan Pitton making 38 saves and John Dolan scoring twice as the hosts produced arguably their best display of the season despite still being without injured top scorer Casey Haines.
A huge game at the NIC between Nottingham and Belfast saw the home side take the lead after only 24 seconds but Giants hit back in devastating style to hit four first period goals and in the end win 5-4 with a counter by Adam Keefe in the 45th minute proving to be the winning effort and ensuring that the league title is still very much up for grabs.
Finally on Saturday it was Sheffield v Coventry and this one produced a 4-2 win for Steelers. Simon Ferguson was the star man for Steelers with 2+1 but good news for Blaze was the return from injury of skipper Shea Guthrie, a vital player in the remainder of the season for Paul Thompson’s men.
On to Sunday now and Coventry were in home action against Belfast. Giants simply could not afford to let themselves down after Saturday nights great win in Nottingham and in a controlled display they blanked Blaze, winning 2-0 with Garrett Zemlak posting 40 saves for his second shutout in three games. It was always a tough shift for Giants however and only when Adam Keefe fired into the empty net with 43 seconds remaining could they relax.
Dundee and Fife renewed rivalries for the second night in a row and this time Stars gained revenge on their thrashing of the previous night by winning 6-5 in a goal filled encounter. Stars actually led 5-2 in the 51st minute before a great Flyers comeback saw them score three times to take the game into overtime. A minor penalty for hooking on Flyers Danny Stewart in overtime proved crucial as it allowed Mike Wirll to fire home Stars’ winner on the powerplay with only 14 seconds of the extra session remaining.
Edinburgh completed a four-point weekend by beating Hull 9-5 in another high scoring contest at Murrayfield. An incredible opening period for the home side saw them score no fewer than four powerplay goals on the way to a 6-1 lead. Stingrays managed to win the second period 1-0 but it was goals galore again in the third as the teams share a further six counters. Doubles for four players in this game with Rene Jarolin and Jade Portwood for Capitals alongside Jereme Tendler and Jason Silverthorn for Stingrays lighting the lamp twice.
Sheffield had another home game on Sunday with leaders Nottingham in town in front of another huge crowd. In the end it was Panthers who bounced back in grand style from their home loss against Belfast to win 4-2, scoring twice without reply in the third period to take the crucial two points and severely dent Steelers own lingering title hopes. The game winner came from the stick of David Clarke in the 53rd minute with the insurance from David Ling four minutes later.
Finally for this week we can fit in the first of this week’s three Challenge Cup Quarter Final 1st Leg ties. Fife entertained Nottingham in Kirkcaldy, still short staffed through injury but after Panthers skated to a 2-0 first period lead the home side dug in and restored equality by the end of the second session. Panthers did come back for David Ling to score what turned out to be the game winner in the 51st minute and there is no doubt now that Panthers are firm favourites to take a place in the last four.