So the playoffs have finally arrived. With pretty much every club hyping their games like mad on twitter and facebook, it looks like this is the most eagerly anticipated competition of the lot. There’s already been lots of chatter and some really great artwork going round social media from both the clubs and fans and there is definitely a feeling of excitement building.
This is not a competition that has a track record of running smoothly. Last season Chelmsford were ejected from the competition after having both first round games awarded against them for fielding an ineligible player. The season before, the game between Streatham and London was abandoned after the second period and the second leg of that tie was never played. In that year Solent were also ejected for icing an ineligible player – but they had already lost both games anyway so it was slightly less of an issue. Here at 482days we’re hoping that all the talking points this year will be for what happens on the ice, not off it.
Chelmsford are clearly the team to beat this season, with an incredible record in the regular season and already having 3 of the 4 trophies up for grabs. Since I am pretty sure they will be going over their team sheet with a fine tooth comb to check player eligibility, I think it is safe to assume that the only way anyone is going to get past them this year will be by beating them on the ice.
But are they unbeatable? Well no – all of the rest of the top half teams have taken points from them this season, and Wightlink Raiders have even shown that they can be beaten at home. Wightlink themselves certainly know how to win this competition as they are current holders of the playoff title and will most definitely want to retain that crown.
Invicta have also got to be up there in terms of teams with a legitimate chance of winning it all. Tipped by some to really struggle this season after wholesale changes to the team, they have been impressive, especially in the latter half of the season and have (in my opinion) the best import in the league in the shape of Eriks Ozollapa. Add in the mid-season signings of Osman and Fowler and the cohesion there seems to be amongst the team now that all the new players have settled in fully and they are definitely a team to be reckoned with.
The dark horse of the competition is possibly Oxford. They have had a tremendous season and have beaten all the teams above them in the league at least once, so they know they have the ability if they play well on the day. Of course first they have to get past Streatham in the opening round this weekend – the only team who have swept them in points in the league.
Streatham themselves will not be happy with their recent form, needing just 1 point from their final 3 games to secure 4th place they had a dreadful time and were unable to find a win. Add in losing both legs in the cup final last weekend and they are a side who are in search of redemption. But they absolutely have the talent in the squad to take on anyone and sometimes a bad run of form can pull a club together in a way that nothing else can.
Now to the clubs who have to be considered as having long odds for the title. Solent Devils had a fantastic final push which saw them jump up a place to 6th in the final few weeks of the season. As a result they have won themselves a derby game against Wightlink Raiders – and while they haven’t managed to beat their neighbours from across the Solent yet, I’m sure they will give it a hell of a go.
Milton Keynes have had a weird old season. Dead last in mid November, they went on an amazing run that saw them move up to 6th place and challenge for 5th at one point. They took a massive gamble in January, bringing in Nick Poole and Stephen Wall that backfired slightly as Wall then picked up injuries that saw him miss quite a few games. I understand that MK have applied for and been granted dispensation for Wall to play in the playoffs, but unfortunately it looks like their young guns who are on 2-ways with MK Lightning will not have played enough to qualify which will be a big loss and I am unsure on the status of Nick Poole.
London Raiders probably have the toughest task in the first round – taking on Chelmsford and I doubt there are many who expect anything other than a Chelmsford win. Don’t discount them completely though – they are capable of playing some very good hockey and I am sure that like MK and Solent, while they will go into the game with high odds against coming through, they will give Chelmsford one hell of a game and will not stop skating until the final buzzer.
So lets look at the match-ups.
Chelmsford Chieftains (1) vs London Raiders (8)
Saturday 17:30 – London home leg
Sunday 18:30 – Chelmsford home leg
Chelmsford are hot favourites here – and probably rightly so, they won the league by a ridiculous 13 points, dropping just 7 (of possible 72) points in the process. They have met 8 times in total so far this season between league, cup and SEC games and the closest London have come is a 5-3 defeat in the SEC. This is an old rivalry that goes back a long way though to the days both teams were in the EPL and London will want to give a good showing of themselves to finish their season off. Expect the games to have a bit of bite to them.
482 Days say: London are not the team to stop the Chelmsford machine. Chieftains to win both games fairly comfortably.
Invicta Dynamos (2) vs Milton Keynes Thunder (7)
Saturday 19:00 – MK home leg
Sunday 17:15 – Invicta home leg
There is certainly no love lost between these two sides after goalie-gate (parts 1 and 2). MK players and management have made statements on social media accusing Invicta of trying to tap up their players mid season and playing cheque-book hockey and Invicta players and management have similarly gone on social media accusing MK of being unsportsmanlike by refusing to lend their goalie kit when it was left behind by mistake. So I expect this series to be a real grudge match on both sides. Invicta are clear favourites, having swept all 8 points in the four meetings between the sides so far – include the infamous 6-2 win at the end of January when the Mos played the first 18 minutes without a netminder.
482 Days say: Invicta to turn up with all kit intact and win both games.
Wightlink Raiders (3) vs Solent Devils (6)
Saturday 18:00 – Wightlink home leg
Sunday 19:00 – Solent home leg
Very much a derby game here and probably the draw both sides would have chosen out of the likely options as they should have a great gate for both games. The teams have met 6 times in all with a draw in the cup group stage the only point that Solent have managed to take of the 12. Solent, who have a smaller bench to start with, will also be without player/coach Alex Murray on the ice after he suffered a broken jaw in March while Wightlink have been impressive with how full their line-up has been all season. Solent are obvious underdogs in this one, and don’t even have the advantage of playing their home game against a team that isn’t used to a small ice pad. Having said that every dog has their day sometimes – right?
482 Days say: Solent will give it a good go in their home leg and could keep the score relatively close but Wightlink too strong at home will be the ones moving into the next round.
Oxford City Stars (4) vs Streatham Redskins (5)
Saturday 19:00 – Oxford home leg
Sunday 18:45 – Streatham home leg
Oxford will just about go into this game as the favourites – having overtaken Streatham in the league on the last day of the season and having much better form going in to the playoffs. That might be the problem though – Oxford often do better when they have the underdog status. Of course, they can probably still claim it as Streatham are the only side that they have failed to take a point from – losing all 4 of their league games to the South London side. What we do know is that these are two teams who like rough and tough hockey and have the penalty minutes to prove it. Which means that we will likely either see loads of fights or none at all – nether sides is very good at the middle ground! This is certainly the most interesting of the match ups from a neutral’s point of view. I do think that Oxford have to win at home if they want to progress and probably by more than one goal as I think Streatham will win their home leg but as for the winners of the tie, I am honestly not certain.
482 Days say: I think both teams will win their home leg, but am honestly not sure who will come out on top. So I’ll be really bold and say Oxford to win after penalty shots.
Posted in NIHL Playoffs, Weekend Preview