Britain’s Elite Ice Hockey League play-offs a tense affair
It might not quite match it in terms of standard, but last weekend saw British ice hockey prove that, when it comes to nail-biting finals, its Elite Ice Hockey League (EIHL) is more than capable of competing with the Olympics.
The 2009-10 Play-offs were always going to be a closely contested affair with the seasonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s previous trophies all having gone to different teams. The eight Elite Teams, therefore, entered its quarter finals Ã¢â‚¬â€ seeded according to their League finish Ã¢â‚¬â€ in the knowledge that the yearÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s last opportunity for some silverware was definitely not a foregone conclusion.
League Winners, Coventry Blaze, kicked off their campaign by stamping on the Hull Stingrays before the Cardiff Devils Ã¢â‚¬â€ the only team to reach the semis seven years running Ã¢â‚¬â€ extinguished the BlazeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s hopes of adding to their mantelpiece.
The DevilsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ previous round saw them contribute to the Sheffield SteelersÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ misery with victories in both legs, leaving the latter with no chance to make amends for the miserable run of losses that had blighted a promising start to the season.
The Steelers vanquishers within the Challenge Cup semis, eventual winners the Nottingham Panthers, overcame a tied first leg with a home shutout to knock out the Edinburgh Capitals. However, the semis saw them lose a penalty shootout to the victors of the Newcastle Vipers, the Belfast Giants.
The final, therefore, became a battle between the Giants and Devils, each desperate to better second place Ã¢â‚¬â€ the Giants having been League runners-up, and the Devils Challenge Cup finalists.
The first period saw fast-flowing end-to-end hockey, with both sides failing to convert seven shots on goal, and with referee Moray Hanson only calling the first individual penalty Ã¢â‚¬â€œ against BelfastÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Shane Johnson for high sticks Ã¢â‚¬â€œ at 12:23. The Giants then had their own Power Play opportunity when DevilsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ Matt Miller was booked for roughing (16:29), but both sidesÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ Penalty Kills held strong.
The second period started with four-on-four hockey Ã¢â‚¬â€œ both Miller and GiantsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ Evan Cheverie in the box for interference (19:30) and a 2 + 2 high sticks penalty (19:19), respectively.
If it was Cardiff who had had a slightly stronger start, it was Belfast who now took charge with Brandon Benedict ready at the crease to slot home Tom WalshÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s pass (21:21), Kevin Phillips attributed the second assist. George Awada then extended the GiantsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ lead with a Power Play goal (31:38) after getting the last touch on Tim CookÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s shot whilst Miller sat out another interference call.
However, in under a minute (32:04), DevilsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ Man of the Match, Max Birbraer, put his team back on track with assists from Jay Latulippe and Mike Hartwick. The Devils then capitalised on the momentum swing: Birbraer, assisted by Captain Mark Richardson, driving the puck home from the blue line on a Power Play (37:39).
The third period was fraught, seeing a combined total of thirty-five shots on goal. It was, however, DevilsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ goalie, Stevie Lyle, who narrowly faced the most rubber as the Giants maintained the pressure in their offensive zone.
Nevertheless, the 2-2 score line held fast and, despite ten minutes of overtime, the gameÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s goals remained sandwiched within the second period.
The ensuing penalty shootout saw the outstanding British goalies Ã¢â‚¬â€œ Stephen Murphy for the Giants Ã¢â‚¬â€œ each go one-on-one against three imports: Devils with Birbraer, Wes Jarvis, and Mark Smith; Giants with Cheverie, Walsh, and Jeff Swez. In the end, the win came down to the eighth shot as CheverieÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s second attempt beat Lyle and Belfast lifted the trophy.
The DevilsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ heartbreak was painful to see, however it seemed fitting that the GiantsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ Johnson ended his career both on a high and with a team for which he had been a part of the original line-up.
But, as the EIHL loses one of its greats, it also sees the addition of a new team Ã¢â‚¬â€ the Braehead Clan Ã¢â‚¬â€ and a new Ã¢â‚¬Å“excit[ing]Ã¢â‚¬Â format, meaning that the 2010-11 season is definitely one not to be missed.
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