Credit: Biker Jun Photos
And so we’ve arrived at the first round of this great way to kill time before the new season starts fantastic playoff experiment. We’ll be splitting the first round into two separate articles and we’re going to start with Games A to D, i.e the Northern heavy round which has the top four northern teams take on the bottom four Southern.
Blackburn Hawks (N1) vs London Raiders (S8)
The prelude to this series was the the league season. One side won it all and one side scraped into the playoffs after losing the series to the Oxford City Stars (ED: control yourself Carpo). However, what the two sides had in common was one thing. A very special thing. In fact, three beautiful words that combined the two teams together in way that the rest of the National Ice Hockey League couldn’t.
Those words: Penalties in Minutes.
Two sides that lead their respective leagues in the PIM counts and that’s why this entire series was touted by both clubs as the most physical encounter you’ll ever see in hockey…. And which is precisely why exactly nothing happened on ice. Both teams were so eager to provoke each other and hold their discipline meant for an encounter based upon skill before anything else.
Overall, although I recon that London would be tough to beat at Lee Valley with their form going into the playoffs, I can’t see past Blackburn, who’ve got a very solid and balanced line up and with Adam and Luke Brittle up front, it should give them more than enough firepower to win the series , so I’ve got to go for Blackburn by about five or six on aggregate.
Billingham Stars (N2) vs Solent & Gosport Devils (S7)
With the first leg in Gosport on a Saturday, Billingham’s Big Red Machine rolls into the South coast, hopefully not filling up to much at the carvery next door. While there are other small rinks in the North, there’s nothing quite like a big crowd for Solent which makes it an incredibly intimidating place to visit.
In a lot of respects, the teams themselves are made up in the same way, an import leading the way in the scoring charts for both teams, outside of that, it’s a truly team effort with everyone chipping in and a good balance of youth and experience. Solent’s strength comes from their physicality and hard working team ethic, and the same could be said of Billingham who have produced impressive performances this season, even on the occasions they have been shortbenched.
These playoffs always has the lower seeded team playing at home first on the Saturday and I honestly could see a shock result for the Devils to win by a goal, but I think the long trip up north combined with a huge effort that they would have had to put in the day before would give the Stars the win by three or four over the two legs.
Solway Sharks (N3) vs Milton Keynes Thunder (S6)
Of the ties so far, this is the first one with a real clash of ideologies going on. Milton Keynes strength for the entire season has been their goalkeeping and defence, while Solway who finished third in the league but scored the second most goals in the division. Despite this, both goalkeepers (Damien King for MK, Gary Russell for Solway) finished the season on around 92.5%, however King faced around 1350 shots to Russell’s 450.
Up front, both sides had a player in the Top 10 scoring of their respective divisions, Richard Bentham for Solway and Jamie Line from MK. Import scoring could come into player with Poziomkowski putting up over a point a game for the Thunder.
It’s difficult to look past Solway to win this tie over two legs, but I still think they would find it to be an exceptionally hard Saturday night in Milton Keynes and could easily see this being a draw, but for Solway to win back in Dumfries.
Sheffield Spartans (N4) vs Bracknell Hornets (S5)
Now, now, now. One of the most interesting ties of this entire thing for me, as we have two sides that are set up in quite a similar fashion, and the stats don’t lie:
British Home grown players: Sheffield 16/25 = 64%, Bracknell 16/26 = 62%
Players in 10 top league Scoring: Sheffield 2 (Oliver Barron, Stuart Brittle), Bracknell 1 (JJ Pitchley)
PIMS per game: Sheffield 21, Bracknell 16
Overall goalkeeping: Sheffield 91%, 3.54GAA Bracknell 88%, 3.75GAA
And to tell the truth, there doesn’t appear to be much that would separate these two sides. There is however, one factor which I haven’t mentioned as of yet, and that’s imports. In Peter Jasik especially, he’s a factor that can turn games around having proved himself as an import at this level over a number of years.
I think overall, it’s going to be an (upset) win for Bracknell in this one. I can see both sides winning at home, but I think that the imports are the difference for the Hornets who edge over the line.
Part two of the first round will come next week, but so far the Quarter-Finals look like this:
Blackburn Hawks vs Wightlink Raiders OR Sutton Sting
Billingham Stars vs Streatham Redskins OR Whitley Warriors
Invicta Dynamos OR Manchester NIHL Phoenix vs Solway Sharks
Chelmsford Cheiftains OR Solihull Barons vs Bracknell Hornets