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 season’s previous trophies all having gone to different teams. The eight Elite Teams, therefore, entered its quarter finals - seeded according to their League finish - in the knowledge that the year’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 - the only team to reach the semis seven years running - extinguished the Blaze’s hopes of adding to their mantelpiece.
The Devils’ previous round saw them contribute to the Sheffield Steelers’ 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 - 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 – against Belfast’s Shane Johnson for high sticks – at 12:23. The Giants then had their own Power Play opportunity when Devils’ Matt Miller was booked for roughing (16:29), but both sides’ Penalty Kills held strong.
The second period started with four-on-four hockey – both Miller and Giants’ 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 Walsh’s pass (21:21), Kevin Phillips attributed the second assist. George Awada then extended the Giants’ lead with a Power Play goal (31:38) after getting the last touch on Tim Cook’s shot whilst Miller sat out another interference call.
However, in under a minute (32:04), Devils’ 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, Devils’ 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 game’s goals remained sandwiched within the second period.
The ensuing penalty shootout saw the outstanding British goalies – Stephen Murphy for the Giants – 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 Cheverie’s second attempt beat Lyle and Belfast lifted the trophy.
The Devils’ heartbreak was painful to see, however it seemed fitting that the Giants’ 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 - the Braehead Clan - and a new “excit[ing]” format, meaning that the 2010-11 season is definitely one not to be missed.