Last year's NIHL Cup is held aloft (by winning team Invicta Dynamos)
Photo Credit: David Trevallion
So, with the exception of a couple of ‘mopping up’ games next weekend, the league has come to its climax and we start to turn our thoughts to the final pieces of silverware for NIHL1 in the South.
This weekend, we see the cup final – where Streatham Redskins and Chelmsford Chieftains will go head to head over two legs. For Chelmsford it is the chance for a third piece of silverware already this season, for Streatham a chance to grab their first since the club reformed in 2003.
For Streatham, the desire for silverware is very clear from their players: Ryan Giles may be new to the team this year, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t hungry to bring them a cup “Streatham deserve some long awaited silverware. The club is building and has a positive future with long term ambitions. This year, we’ve competed with all the top teams and deserve a trophy.”
Netminder Will Sanderson agrees “This weekend is huge for the club. The fans have been with us through some tough seasons in the recent years and they really deserve to see some silverware. I’ve played for Streatham for 7 seasons now and things have really moved forward since my first season. Moving from the old rink, to Brixton and then to the new rink was a difficult transition, and during that period our main focus was on surviving. Now our main focuses in a season are cracking the top two and getting ourselves some silverware.”
Clearly the top two is still a goal for future seasons, but the cup final gives the Skins a clear chance of finally getting something to put in their trophy cabinet! All they need to do is beat Chelmsford over two legs. Of course, that’s easier said than done! Streatham and Chelmsford have met 6 times so far this season and the Chieftains have come out on top in 5 of those occasions – taking a clean sweep of league points and only losing in a SE cup game, after they had already secured that competition. For Streatham they will be holding on to the fact that it was in their most recent meeting that they were finally able to turn the tables. Will Sanderson believe this “Chelmsford are never an easy team to face, but we got the upper hand on them last time we played so I’m sure that will be playing on their minds.”
There is a bit of a sense of little deja vu to this match-up. 2 years ago, Chelmsford were again chasing a quadruple and had already secured the SE Cup and league trophies when they met Streatham in the cup final game. But I am not sure there is a sense of inevitability to it all. The Streatham team are in a very different place than they were 2 years ago. They are now nicely settled into their lovely new rink and are very much seen as being one of the top 4 ‘big clubs’ of the league in terms of their performances.
Last year the teams met in the semi-finals round and it was one hell of a competition with Chelmsford winning 4-3 at the High Road and then Streatham taking the game to a 5-4 win at the end of regulation at the Riverside. A scoreless overtime period meant that it went to penalty shots and Matt Turner was the hero for the Chieftains with the winning p-shot.
Looking at Chelmsford, you have to wonder if their players get a touch blasé about winning all these trophies. Apparently not though, as Cameron Bartlett says “Winning never get boring, it’s always a different challenge every single year. I don’t ever believe you can win to many trophies, you just have to work hard week in week out and gel as a team and this year I think we have better than any other year. It’s a great atmosphere in the changing room and that’s showing on the ice.”
Sean Barry agrees: “Every trophy means the same to us, although most of the boys have won everything numerous times we are all still hungry to win more. Especially with what happened last year losing the cup final and being kicked out of the playoffs, that’s given us more motivation to win all four trophies this year.”
Looking at the teams, Chelmsford are clearly going in to this game as the favourites. They sewed up the league ages ago and in the end it was by an enormous 13 point margin. But they are not unbeatable. All the other top-half teams have taken points from them this season. For me, the key for Streatham is probably winning at home. If they take a deficit into the game on Sunday at The Riverside, it really will be an uphill battle for them – but if they can take a lead into the second leg then I think they have a good chance of taking the trophy. Streatham’s Adam Wood agrees “We are obviously underdogs, but I think most would agree that’s not usually a bad thing. After having to meet Chelmsford in the semis last year and going out against them in a shootout we will obviously be looking to change the outcome. With a full team, fit and looking forward to the challenge it is surely going to be an exciting weekend whatever the final result.”
Streatham coach Warren Rost, certainly believes that his team can do it “For us the main issue is player availability but if we have a full squad we’ll do very well and we’ll be very confident. We’re looking forward to it. It’s been a difficult season for various reasons and we feel we have unfinished business with Chelmsford.”
I believe (note not confirmed, just my totting up) that Steve Fisher will be back from suspension for both legs but Chris Wiggins may have to sit out the first leg. Getting Fisher back will be a huge plus for Redskins – he adds a physical presence as well as being a genuine goal-scorer. Add in the scoring options of Kamil Kinkor and Callum Best and Streatham are certainly not shy of players who know where the back of the net is. Streatham also have real play-makers like Nick Chinn and captain Joe Johnston to add to the mix.
Chelmsford of course also have more than a few scoring options to turn to! When I asked coach Sean Easton who his key players were he responded with “Huska on top form can produce high end offence single handily. He can bring other team mates into scoring chances if teams try and shut him down, or given a sniff can puck the puck in the net. The Bartlett brothers as well – if one scores you know the other will to make sure one brother is not outdoing the other! Two fire crackers that bring tons of energy, speed and chip in with big goals at key times. Not only do they agitate players to take penalties they can produce big points.” You can of course add in Danny Hammond to the scoring mix and Chelmsford also have great play-makers too – for me, Ross Brears and Oleg Lascenko really stand out in this category.
Defensively, both teams have big-hitters available in the guise of Dom Hopkins for Streatham and Billy Phillips for Chelmsford. Both of them would be in my ‘top British D’ category for NIHL South. They don’t just bring the big hits though – both are also positionally strong and also offensive minded with quite a few goals and assists between them this season. For Chelmsford, import Lukas Zapotek also stands out, as does ex-EPL defenceman David Savage for Streatham.
Finally looking between the pipes, both teams have a strong netminding duo – Chelmsford’s King and Clements are a potent combination and currently top the league netminding charts. Streatham’s duo of Sanderson and Wride may not have quite such impressive statistics (although both only just below the 90% mark so hardly poor) but both have been around the game for long enough and are known to be big-game players who can really put in huge performances when it counts.
When I spoke to them, the netminders from both sides are clearly confident in their teams and up for the game! Ben Clements said “I’m really looking forward to this weekend games against Streatham they are always tough to play against. I think if we can get a good result on Saturday then on home ice I believe we can win the cup. Obviously as a team we have set ourselves goals and wining this cup is one of them so we will definitely be up for this weekend and will aim to make it our third piece of sliver wear this season.”
Will Sanderson is also feeling confident in his team “Chelmsford are never an easy team to face, but we got the upper hand on them last time we played so I’m sure that will be playing on their minds.” He added, “Being part of this team now is so different, we have some strong characters and some of the best players this league has seen. Overall I think a lot of the team are slightly disappointed in our league form and where we have ended up, but we’ve got ourselves into this Final by showing everyone what we can achieve when we are at our best and a good performance this weekend will not only give us a chance at some silverware, but will really give us some momentum going into the playoffs.”
Ryan Giles certainly has a lot of respect for his former team “You can’t argue that Chelmsford have been the most consistent throughout the campaign – that’s what wins trophies and they have two to their name already.” But he also believes that Streatham can come out on top: “We’re in the cup final and deserve to be – now it’s two games over one weekend and we’re more than capable of winning. When we are on form and at full strength, we can beat them. If we turn up to play on both days, we will walk away with the trophy.”
The two teams certainly have pretty contrasting styles. Chelmsford are a very free-flowing team and while they certainly can play a physical game it’s probably not the style that suits them best. Coach Sean Easton tells us what he thinks Chiefs need to do “Chieftains will need to play smart hockey, stay disciplined and play our systems to the T. Our weapon is speed and crisp passing plays that open up teams easily. We want to keep our feet moving offensively. Defensively keep Streatham to the wall, make sure there shots are limited from outside the dots where our excellent goalies will stop every time. Create quick counter punch offence from Streatham’s mistakes.”
Streatham can certainly play free-flowing hockey as well and have sometimes surprised teams by doing so, but they are perhaps best known for their very physical and aggressive play – really closing down the opposition with hard fore-checking and back-checking to give no time or space on the puck. Doing this consistently and well will probably be a key factor for them in my mind.
The atmosphere at the games is likely to be electric with Streatham fans known for being some of the noisiest in the league. Adam Wood certainly appreciates them “Everyone is really looking forward to it, we have brilliant, loud fans who will no doubt somehow be louder than usual this weekend and really get behind us during both legs of the final.”
For once, 482days is not going to try and call the outcome here. We are just looking forward to watching two strong teams go all out and provide us with a great weekend of hockey. In the words of Sean Easton “This weekend will be an excellent advert for NIHL1 hockey.”