NIHL South 2 Final Four Playoff Weekend Preview 2018-19

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It all comes down to this: after a regular season in which the title battle went right down to the wire, it’s time for the NIHL South 2 Playoff Weekend in Bracknell.

In the tightest of tight finishes, the Slough Jets claimed the league title over the Solent Devils on countback, after both teams had finished on 51 points.

Three points further back were reigning champions Oxford in third, while early league leaders Chelmsford faded somewhat during the course of the season and ended up in fourth.

This sets up semi-final match-ups on Saturday of Slough vs Chelmsford, and Solent vs Oxford. Both promise to be intense games, with the results of both being very hard to predict.

The winners will then square off on Sunday in the final to crown the NIHL South 2 Playoff champions.

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Semi-Final 1: Slough Jets (1st) vs Chelmsford Chieftains (4th)

In the first of the weekend’s semi-finals, league champions Slough take on fourth placed Chelmsford.

Slough Jets

Player-coach Lukas Smital led the Jets to the league title (Photo: James Assinder)

Story of their season

The Jets completed a Cinderella story this season – having finished bottom of the pile two years ago, and seventh last year, player-coach Lukas Smital’s side took a huge step forward this campaign to claim the league crown.

The Jets recruited well over the summer, adding young netminding duo Matt Smital and Brett Shepherd, as well as forwards Dan Rose, Sean Norris and Sam Talbot. Smital stayed on as player-coach for a second season, as the side looked to build on a mid-table finish in the previous campaign.

Their 2018-19 season didn’t get off to an ideal start, as they went down 8-2 in Oxford in their season opener. A second loss of the season followed against the Chieftains, but in hindsight the narrow 7-6 defeat was a sign of how competitive the Jets would be.

What followed was quite spectacular – the Jets went on a 24-game winning streak between the end of September and the middle of March, including twin victories over Solent and a 4-3 home overtime win over the Chieftains in January.

The Jets finally lost a game again at the end of March, but crucially took a point as they went down in overtime to Oxford.

And Slough clinched the league title on the 6th of April with a 7-2 win over Peterborough, as they finished the season level on points with Solent but won the title on head-to-head results – with their double win over the Devils back in October proving to be absolutely crucial.

Sean Norris impressed for the Jets in his first season for the club (Photo: Kevin Slyfield)

Players to watch

Where to start? Matt Smital played the majority of games in the Slough net, logging a strong 91.71% save percentage. And when backup Brett Shepherd was called upon, he always delivered as he finished with a save percentage of 93.46%. On the blueline, defenceman Luke Reynolds once again impressed with good leadership and veteran presence.

Up front, the Jets had four players in the league’s top 20 scorers. Despite playing only 19 games out of 28, Lukas Smital topped the scoring for the team as he bagged 27 goals and 57 assists for 87 points. Team newcomers Norris (35+44=79), Talbot (32+26=58) and Rose (21+23=44) also scored big points on regular occasions.

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Chelmsford Chieftains

Ross Brears had his best season to date, scoring 94 points (Photo: Flyfifer Photography)

Story of their season

The Chieftains had to contend with an odd schedule this season – their Riverside rink closed for refurbishment at the end of October, so the Essex side started their season with eight home games in quick succession, before the rest of the season was a mix of away games and several “home” games at their adopted rink at Lee Valley.

They managed to keep the core of their side together from last season, although they did have to deal with the loss of influential twins Cameron and Grant Bartlett, who moved to the Invicta Dynamos in the league above.

They made a fantastic start, making full use of the home ice advantage in the early stages of the campaign to win their first nine games on the bounce and top the league early on. The Chieftains also welcomed back the Bartlett twins in October, after the duo left the Dynamos and moved back to the club where they made their name.

Chelmsford had a few blips after that, though; as well as losses to fellow title contenders Oxford and Slough in November and January respectively, they also suffered surprising defeats to Bristol and Invicta which ultimately cost them a chance of a top three finish.

Two more defeats – to Solent in March and Oxford in April – led to the Chieftains finishing the season fourth overall with 21 wins and six losses to their name.

Sonny Phillips had another impressive season between the pipes (Photo: Flyfifer Photography)

Players to watch

Netminder Sonny Phillips had another impressive season, finishing with a save percentage of 91%. On the blueline, Gary Brown had a standout year offensively as he scored 25 points, while Swedish utility man David Millner scored 30 points in 10 games after joining from NIHL South 1 side the Bracknell Bees in December.

Up front, this season was all about Ross Brears, as the 27-year-old had a breakout year offensively scoring 42 goals and 52 assists for 94 points, good enough for second overall in league scoring. The Chieftains also got strong scoring from James Ayling (29+37=66), Grant Bartlett (29+21=50), Bradley Moore (14+23=37) and Cameron Bartlett (13+19=32), as the Essex side had the best goals-per-game ratio in the whole league with 7.44 goals scored per game.

Head to Head

The two sides faced off at Chelmsford way back on the 23rd of September, with the Chieftains winning a 7-6 thriller thanks to a 59th minute winner from James Ayling. Also on target for the Chieftains in that game were Courtney Grant, Bradley Moore (two goals each), Ross Brears and Charlie Phillips; while Sean Norris and Timo Lindgren scored a brace each for the Jets with single goals coming from Dan Rose and Lukas Smital.

The rematch took place in Slough on the 12th of January, and it was another thriller as the Jets came away with a 4-3 win in overtime. Sam Talbot was the hero as he scored the overtime winner after also scoring another goal earlier on, while Sean Norris also grabbed a brace including the equalising goal just 19 seconds before the end of regulation that sent the game to overtime. On target for the Chieftains were Ross Brears (two goals) and Grant Bartlett.

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Semi-Final 2: Solent Devils (2nd) vs Oxford City Stars (3rd)

Reigning playoff champions Solent square off against last season’s league champions Oxford in the second semi-final on Saturday evening.

Solent Devils

Devils player-coach Alex Murray once again did an impressive job both on and off the ice (Photo: Dave Chapman)

Story of their season

Having finished second in the league last season, the Devils looked to go one better this time around and secure the league crown. And they came oh-so-close, only losing out to Slough on head-to-head results after an identical points total of 51 from a possible 56.

The south coast side started off like a house on fire, winning their first three games against Invicta, Swindon and Lee Valley with a total combined score of 36-4.

They ran into trouble at the end of October when they played the Slough Jets in back-to-back games though, losing both games in regulation time by scores of 3-1 away and 8-3 at home.

From that point onwards, they were always playing catch-up – and while they did not lose another game in regulation time all season long, they needed the Jets to slip up at least once in order to give them a chance of taking the title; and sadly for the Devils, that did not happen.

The only defeat for the Devils after the aforementioned double loss to Slough was a 5-4 shootout defeat to Chelmsford in March. If the Devils had managed to win that game, they would have taken the league title by one point.

Nonetheless, it was another very strong season from player-coach Alex Murray’s team – and having won the playoffs last season from second place in the league, they will have high hopes of doing the same this weekend.

Chico Cole played a big part in the Devils conceding just 64 goals this season (Photo: Dave Chapman)

Players to watch

Having topped the league scoring charts last season with 85 points, veteran forward Richard Facey was even better this time around – once again scoring the most points of anyone in the league as he reached exactly 100 points (43 goals and 57 assists). Player-coach Alex Murray was third in league scoring with 30+57=87, while Canadian forward Drew Campbell came out of retirement in October and put up 18+28=46 in 23 games.

At the other end of the ice, netminder Christian “Chico” Cole once again impressed as he put up a save percentage of 92.86%. Alex Cole, Daniel Lackey and Mason Wild all impressed on the blueline and helped the Devils concede the fewest goals-per-game of any side this season, as they let in just 2.29 per game.

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Oxford City Stars

The retiring Darren Elliott will play his final game (or games?) for Oxford this weekend (Photo: Kevin Slyfield)

Story of their season

As reigning league champions, Oxford came into the season with a target on their back. After winning their first six on the bounce, they then suffered a surprising 3-2 home defeat against Guildford.

They bounced back from that, winning their next three games, before a 4-2 away defeat against the Devils on the 1st of December.

Ten consecutive wins followed, before another defeat to the Devils stopped their momentum, this time a 6-2 defeat in Oxford.

Their fourth and final defeat came against Romford at home at the end of March, just a week after they had beaten leaders Slough in overtime to give them an outside chance of lifting the title.

The Stars finished the season with wins against Chelmsford and Cardiff, allowing them to clinch third place in the league, and they finished three points back from Slough and Solent.

They will be hoping to make up for losing their league title by taking the playoff crown at Bracknell on finals weekend.

Josh Florey was one of several Oxford defencemen who impressed this season (Photo: James Assinder)

Players to watch

Unlike last season, in which they were the best offensive team in the league with 8.58 goals scored per game, the Stars were the least goal-happy of the top four sides this time around as they fell to 6.32 goals per game. Their top scorer was player-coach Lee Richardson with 53 points (20 goals and 33 assists), which was good enough for 11th in league scoring, while Michal Oravec was just behind with 17+34=51. The Stars were hurt by the departure of Joe Edwards to NIHL South 1 side Milton Keynes back in February – he had scored 14+15=29 in just 16 games at that point.

At the other end of the ice, their defence was solid as they conceded just 2.5 goals a game, with veterans Dominic Hopkins, Alex Staples and forward-turned-defenceman Josh Florey all impressing. The Stars used four netminders this season, with John Dibble (94.07%) and Milan Ronai (91.35%) putting up the best save percentages.

Head to Head

As mentioned above, the Devils won both of the games between the sides this season. They beat the Stars 4-2 on the 1st of December at home, with Solent goals coming from Daniel Lackey (two), Richard Facey and Alex Murray; while Josh Florey and Lee Richardson netted for the Stars.

The second clash took place in Oxford on the 9th of March, with the Devils taking a big 6-2 road win thanks to goals from Alex Trendall (hat-trick), Richard Facey (two) and Drew Campbell. Oxford’s goals came from Josh Oliver and Michal Oravec.

April 20th, 2019 by