After a long campaign stretching back to September, we have finally reached the final weekend of the regular season – with the title race still hanging in the balance.
League leaders Slough and chasers Solent are level on 49 points apiece with one game left each – and with Slough holding the tie-break over Solent, a win for the Jets on Saturday will seal the title for Lukas Smital’s side.
Bristol Pitbulls vs Lee Valley Lions
It’s a battle of dogs vs cats in Oxford as the tenth-placed Bristol welcome bottom side Lee Valley, in the last game of the season for both sides.
The Pitbulls will have an eye on overtaking Peterborough for ninth in the table if they win this game and the Phantoms lose against Slough, so will be motivated to end their season on a high. They will also hope that it is their last “home” game in Oxford, with the club planning to move into a new rink in Bristol as soon as possible. The Pitbulls handed a debut to female netminder Gemma Davies, usually of the Swindon Topcats in the Women’s Elite League, in their game against the Solent Devils last weekend, and she put in a top performance to limit the title chasers to just two powerplay goals in a very tight 2-1 win for the Devils. The lone scorer for the Pitbulls was Steve Osman, who scored his 20th goal of the season.
The Lions did not play last weekend, with their previous game coming two weeks back as they went down 10-2 at home to the NIHL2 Raiders. Czech forward Tom Hnilica reached the 20 goal mark for the season in that game as he scored a brace, and will be hoping to grab a few more goals to end the season well. The Lions have taken one win this season – away at Swindon in January – and will be looking to end the season with a good performance on the road here.
With the Pitbulls still playing for a potential league placing, expect them to have too much for the Lions in this game and to be favourites for the win.
Solent Devils vs Basingstoke Buffalo
An absolute must-win game for the Devils down on the south coast, as they welcome fellow Hampshire side Basingstoke to Gosport.
The home team know they must score more points than the Jets, who play away at Peterborough, in order to have a chance of taking the title – so the Devils simply have to win and cross their fingers that the Jets drop points against the Phantoms. The Devils haven’t been at their free-scoring best in their last few games, taking 5-0 and 2-1 wins over Invicta and Bristol respectively after going down 5-4 in a shootout against Chelmsford a few weeks back. But they have still only lost three games all season – all to fellow top-four sides – so are massive favourites to win this game and heap the pressure on Slough.
The Buffalo still have an outside chance of moving up a spot to 12th in the league, but in order to do so they will have to win this game on the road in Gosport, which is not an easy task. Earlier this season, these two sides met in Basingstoke and the Buffalo kept it close for two periods, before slipping to a narrow 4-2 defeat. The Devils will not want a repeat of that game, and will want to make a statement here by taking a big win that gives them that chance of winning the league title.
With everything riding on this game for the Devils, expect their big-name players to step up and lead them to a win. Whether that will be enough to take the league crown – we’ll have to wait and see.
Chelmsford Chieftains vs Oxford City Stars
A few weeks ago, this looked like it may be a battle that decided the league title. Instead, with both teams out of the title race, it could help to decide who finishes third in the league this season – with both sides level on 44 points with two games to play.
The Chieftains started the season like a house on fire, winning their first nine games on the bounce to mark themselves out as title contenders. However, once their Riverside rink closed for refurbishment and they had to play the majority of their games on the road, their form dipped somewhat and they have now lost five games, more than any other side in the top four. They do however have the top-scoring offence in the league, having scored 201 goals so far this season – the only side to pass 200 at this stage. And they also have the top-scoring player in the league in forward Ross Brears, who has a barely-believable 42 goals and 52 assists this season for 94 points.
Oxford’s chances of retaining their league title evaporated last weekend as they went down 5-3 to the NIHL2 Raiders. Both sides fielded teenage netminders, with Brad Windebank in net for the Raiders and Daniel Treuherz between the pipes for Oxford. Goals from Josh Florey, Josh Oliver and Matthew Lawday weren’t enough for the Stars, as Windebank made 47 saves to back-stop his Romford side to victory. That defeat for Oxford officially eliminated them from the title chase, so they can now focus fully on winning both their games this weekend to finish third heading into the playoffs.
This game is a hard one to predict, with Oxford having won 3-1 at home earlier this season in a tight tussle. The result could go either way here in a battle of two very strong teams.
It should also be noted that Chelmsford have one more game scheduled after this, at home to Cardiff – but as of yet, no date for this game has been found, so it looks likely to be awarded 0-0 with each team taking one point, if a new date cannot be found before the playoffs.
Peterborough NIHL2 Phantoms vs Slough Jets
it all comes down to this for the league-leading Jets, with their destiny in their own hands. Win this game, and the league title will be heading to Slough. But they must be wary of the Phantoms, who could play the role of banana skin in this game.
Peterborough have had a very up-and-down season, and after defeat against Bracknell last weekend now sit ninth in the table. They could move up to eighth, or drop to tenth, or even stay where they are depending on results this weekend, and will be looking to finish off a tough campaign with a win that gives them the best possible chance of a top eight finish. In Conor Pollard, the Phantoms have one of the best forwards in the league – he has bagged 31 goals and a further 26 assists for 57 points this season, leading his side from the front.
The Jets finally saw their 24-game (!) winning streak come to an end two weekends ago in a thrilling tussle against Oxford – but crucially the Jets took the game to OT, gaining a point and keeping their destiny in their own hands ahead of the Solent Devils. If Slough and Solent finish level on points, the first tie-break will be head-to-head results; and with the Jets having beaten the Devils twice this season, they have this advantage. So they “simply” need to take both points on the road in Peterborough on Saturday to be crowned league champions.
The pressure will be on for the Jets – but they have played such a fantastic season and won a lot of big games already, so they are favourites here. Whatever happens, it should be a tense evening…
Oxford City Stars vs Cardiff Fire
In the only game on Sunday, the Stars play their final home game of the season, against a Cardiff side who may or may not have another game to play against Chelmsford after this one (depending on whether a date can be found).
For Oxford, as well as looking for a win to finish third, they will also look to send club stalwart Darren Elliott out on a high in his last ever competitive game at Oxpens Road. Elliott, known as “Mr Oxford”, has played for the club almost continuously since 1996 with only a few seasons away from his home club. Over the years. he has acted as captain and player-coach at the Stars, and earlier this season announced his retirement from the game. He will get a testimonial game in June, but this will be the last time he dons the Oxford jersey in a competitive game on home ice, and it’s sure to be an emotional night for the home fans.
The Fire will have their eye on keeping their eighth position that they currently hold ahead of Peterborough. They are on good form, having won their last three games against Haringey (twice) and Invicta – although Oxford will be a tougher task for the Welsh side. These two sides met in Cardiff back in January, with the Stars taking a 5-0 win on the road thanks to goals from Tom Davis, Conor Redmond, Michal Oravec, Lee Richardson and Joe Edwards, with a 38-shot shutout for John Dibble.
The Stars will be looking to win by a similar scoreline here and win their final home game before the playoff finals weekend in Bracknell, and they have to be considered favourites for this one.
17:00 Bristol Pitbulls vs Lee Valley Lions
17:00 Solent Devils vs Basingstoke Buffalo
17:30 Chelmsford Chieftains vs Oxford City Stars
18:15 Peterborough NIHL2 Phantoms vs Slough Jets
18:15 Oxford City Stars vs Cardiff Fire
NIHL South 2 (Wilkinson) Standings
Note: Basingstoke’s home game vs Cardiff has been awarded as a 0-0 draw due to ice issues.