NIHL2 Final Four Playoff Weekend Preview – 21/22 April

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It all comes down to this: the Final Four weekend in Bracknell. Four teams battling it out for the NIHL South 2 playoff crown, and the chance to be promoted to South 1 for next season. Oxford, Solent and Chelmsford have made it to this weekend as was to be expected – however the fourth participant is a bit of a surprise, as sixth placed Guildford knocked out third placed Bracknell last weekend to reach the Final Four.

In the first semi-final on Saturday, champions Oxford take on Chelmsford, who finished the season in fourth place; while in the second game, league runners up Solent will clash with the aforementioned Guildford.

The winning two sides will then battle it out in the final on Sunday, with the winner earning the chance to take automatic promotion to South 1 next season. It should be a thrilling weekend of action.

Oxford City Stars

League Record
Regulation wins: 22
OT wins: 1
OT losses: 0
Regulation losses: 3
Points: 46 (88.5%)
Goal difference: 168

Playoff record
QF: Beat Bristol Pitbulls 14-4

Oxford won the league title by just one point over Solent, but for the majority of the season they looked like champions elect; finally clinching the crown with a victory against the Devils on March 25th. The Stars scored a massive 223 goals in the regular season and conceded just 55 – meaning they had the best offence and the best defence in the league. They were also crowned NIHL2 National champions two weekends ago in Coventry as they beat the Sutton Sting 3-1.

The Stars uncharacteristically struggled in the quarter-final first leg against Bristol last Saturday, only taking the win by a score of 4-3. But they made up for that on Sunday, hammering the Pitbulls 10-1 in a feisty second leg.

Main scoring threat: Josh Oliver
After the departure of top scorer Kamil Kinkor for work and family reasons, more scoring pressure has fallen onto the shoulders of Oliver. The Oxford-born forward scored 31 goals and assisted on a further 21 in the regular season, giving him 52 points and putting him second on the team’s scoring list. He also added an assist in the game against Sutton, and 3+4=7 across the two legs against Bristol. On a team with a lot of offensive firepower, it’s hard to pick out just one forward to watch – but free-scoring Oliver could definitely be a big factor if Oxford want to win the playoff title this weekend.

Big on defence: Dominic Hopkins
Veteran blueliner Hopkins is “big on defence” both literally and metaphorically. The giant defenceman towers over most opponents and is an intimidation factor at the back; while he has also scored 17 goals and tallied 31 assists for 48 points in all competitions this season, showing that he can produce offensively for his team too. He was also voted onto the first line of the NIHL2 All-Star Team by players and coaches around the league, alongside team-mate Alex Staples who could also be mentioned in this category. The combination of Hopkins and Staples – two veterans who have a lot of higher level experience – has been a major factor in the Stars only conceding 55 goals this season in 26 games.

Between the pipes: Milan Ronai
Another key factor in the stingy Oxford backline is their netminding. There were some question marks over the Stars’ goaltending coming into the season, however young Hungarian goalie Ronai and fellow netminder Mark Duffy have stepped up to the plate and played a big role in their team securing the league title. Both goalies posted a save percentage of 91.3% in the regular season, showing that there really is nothing to choose between them – but Ronai saw more action between the pipes, stopping 320 shots in the regular season compared to Duffy’s 229. Ronai also started the game against Sutton, stopping 40 of 41 shots, while the two netminders started one game each in the quarter-finals. Time will tell who starts in Saturday’s semi-final, but the smart money would be on the 22-year-old Hungarian getting the nod.

Chelmsford Chieftains

League Record
Regulation wins: 20
OT wins: 0
OT losses: 0
Regulation losses: 6
Points: 40 (76.9%)
Goal difference: 112

Playoff record
QF: Beat Peterborough NIHL2 Phantoms 17-5

After an up-and-down season, the Chieftains are on red hot form: they have won 13 of their last 14 games, and finished the league season in a very comfortable fourth place after a mid-season blip. Last weekend, they dominated Peterborough, knocking off the NIHL2 Phantoms by a massive aggregate score of 17-5 to reach the Final Four weekend. But now they come up against Oxford, who they lost to twice this season with a combined score of 15-4. That promises to be an altogether tougher task.

Main scoring threat: Grant Bartlett
One of the infamous Bartlett twins – alongside fellow Chieftains forward Cameron – who have terrorised defences for years, Grant missed almost half the season with a suspension picked up in the second game of the campaign. But since his return, he has been at the top of his game; ending the season with 28+27=55 from just 15 regular season games, while also adding six points in the two playoff games to date. Grant Bartlett made the second line of the NIHL South 2 All-Star Team despite the amount of games he missed, driving home the impact he has on the games that he does play in. The twins will need to be at their best if the Chieftains want to topple Oxford.

Big on defence: Donald Campbell
A former member of the Chelmsford Warriors NIHL2 side that was disbanded this season when the Chieftains dropped down a league, 19-year-old blueliner Campbell was snapped up by the Chieftains to help shore up their backline. And the former Chelmsford under-18 captain has shown his class at the back, helping the Chieftains to concede the third-least amount of goals in the league (only Oxford and Solent conceded less) while also adding 15 points offensively. Playing alongside experienced defenceman such as Robert Veares, Matt France and Danny Wright has helped Campbell’s game improve and he is now a key part of the Chieftains defence.

Between the pipes: Sonny Phillips
Phillips was one of the best netminders in NIHL South 1 last season, helping the Chieftains to a league and cup double as part of a netminding tandem with Ben Clements – who is now his head coach. Phillips followed the Chieftains down to South 2 this season where he became the #1 goaltender, and has shown his quality on numerous occasions this season; he posted a 91.4% save percentage with four shutouts during the regular season, while also stopping 77 of 82 shots in the quarter-final series against Peterborough. As with the Bartlett twins above, Phillips will also need to be at the very top of his game if the Chieftains are to stand any chance of surprising Oxford and reaching the playoff final.

Head-to-head results this season:
03-Dec: Chieftains 0 – Stars 4 (Oliver, Cox, Lawday, Hopkins)
28-Jan: Stars 11 (Josh Florey x3, Whillock x3, Kinkor x2, Oliver, Bundock, Hopkins) – Chieftains 4 (G. Bartlett x2, Leone, Ayling)

The two results this season were very clear-cut in the Stars’ favour, as they shut out the Chieftains in Essex before hammering them 11-4 in Oxford. However since the blow-out in Oxford, the Chieftains have lost just one of their last 14 games, so such a big victory would be a big surprise. Nonetheless, a victory for champions Oxford is the more likely result – Chelmsford will have to play a disciplined game of hockey in order to topple the Stars.

Don’s Prediction: Oxford 5-3 Chelmsford
Laurence’s Prediction: Oxford 7-4 Chelmsford

Solent Devils

League Record
Regulation wins: 22
OT wins: 0
OT losses: 1
Regulation losses: 3
Points: 45 (86.5%)
Goal difference: 106

Playoff record
QF: Beat Slough Jets 6-3

Solent have been one of the top teams in the league since the get-go, and put together a season that in other years would have warranted them first place in the league table. Instead, they fell short by one point as Oxford City took that crown. But after dispatching a plucky Slough Jets team in the quarterfinals, Solent are one step away from a potential rematch with Oxford in the final, with whom they split the season series. The thought of revenge over the Stars and a finals victory will surely be spurring on a talented Solent team as they enter the semi-finals.

Main scoring threat: Richard Facey

Richard Facey has been the star for Solent this season—and you could put up a good argument that he’s been the star of the league. He was selected Player of the Year in the 482days End of Season Awards, with 50% of his peers saying that he was indeed the best of the best. With 43 goals and 42 assists, he was the only player to score 40+ goals and notch 80+ points this season, and his form has been consistent all season. He kept right on in the quarterfinals, scoring a goal and picking up three assists against Slough.

Big on defence: Alex Cole

On defence, Solent have been superb, allowing just 58 goals, good for second-best in the league. Alex Cole has been a big reason why they’ve been so successful. A strong man on the blue line, he also picked up 18 points this season and captained the team in most games. He’ll want to keep his defence strong against Guildford. Solent gave up three or more goals just 10 times during the season, and the d-men will probably be disappointed that they gave up three to seventh-placed Slough in a playoff home game. Expect their blue-liners to come out hungry against the Phoenix.

Between the pipes: Christian Cole

Christian Cole has been a rock-solid last line of defence for Solent. Although he only had to face just under 600 shots this season thanks to his solid d-men, when he was tested, he rarely let anything through. He finished the regular season with a save percentage of 92.65, which means that 2017-18 has been Cole’s best season between the pipes in senior ice hockey. He was voted onto the second line in the 482days awards, and justly so.

Guildford Phoenix

League record:
Regulation wins: 14
OT wins: 1
OT losses: 1
Regulation losses: 10
Points: 31 (59.6%)
Goal difference: 24

Playoff record:
QF: Beat Bracknell Hornets 2-1

Guildford’s first season in the league has certainly been a success so far. After staying high up in the league amongst all the former South 1 teams for much of the season, they finished a very respectable sixth, and then knocked third-placed Bracknell out in the quarterfinals with a 2-1 win. Guildford is certainly a hockey town and they like to win, so their South 2 team will not be satisfied with an exit in the semi-finals—they’ll have their sights set on the ultimate prize.

Main scoring threat: Andrew Hemmings

Certainly much of their success is down to their experienced player-coach, former EPL forward Andrew Hemmings. The Phoenix are a young team, but Hemmings used his knowledge to make them a real contender all season. Incredibly, this was Hemmings first season as a coach at the senior level, and he scooped the 482days Coach of the Year Award after being overwhelming voted for by his peers. On the ice, he was 12th in the league in points, as he notched 15 goals and 33 assists.

Big on defence: Luke Tull

Luke Tull is one to watch for on defence if you’re heading to Bracknell for the semi-finals. He’s picked up 69 penalty minutes so far so he isn’t afraid to play hard and mix it up a bit on the ice. Plus he isn’t bad at creating some offence, either. He’s Guildford’s top points scorer from the blue line this season, notching 4+5.

Between the pipes: Jacob Stoodley

The Phoenix used a few netminders during the season, utilising Sam Calder and occasionally Harry Buckingham, but they stuck mainly with Jacob Stoodley. He faced 502 shots this season and stopped over 90% of them. He played pretty well against Solent on home ice, allowing five goals from 43 shots. But in the away fixture earlier in he allowed three goals from just 14 shots in the 33:05 he spent on the ice. He won’t want a repeat of that in the semis.

Head-to-head results this season:
03-Feb: Devils 7 (M. Murray x3, Pitts x2, Facey, A, Murray) – Phoenix 2 (H. Wootton, Hemmings)
10-Mar: Phoenix 3 (Abbott x2, B. Wootton) – Devils 5 (Campbell x2, Facey x2. M. Murray)

Solent and Guildford have met the requisite two times this season, and the bad news for the Phoenix is that they lost both those games. The two sides didn’t face off until February, when Solent played host to Guildford and sent them away without a point. Mitchell Murray’s hat-trick and Mark Pitts’ five-point evening lifted Solent to a 7-2 win as they extended their winning streak to 12 games. When they next met, Solent had just lost the week before to Bracknell, and Guildford were in the middle of a rough patch, although they had picked up a win in the preceding week. It was big match for both sides and Solent came away victorious again, as Facey scored twice in a 5-3 win.

Don’s Prediction: Solent 6-3 Guildford
Laurence’s Prediction: Solent 7-3 Guildford

Sat 3:15pm: Oxford City Stars vs Chelmsford Chieftains
Sat 6:45pm: Solent Devils vs Guildford Phoenix

Sunday 5:45pm: NIHL2 South Playoff Final

482days will have full twitter coverage of all three games on across the weekend.  If you’re attending the event, stop by and say ‘hi’! Just look for the yellow laptop. We’ll have pin badges to give out as always (if there is anyone left that doesn’t have one yet).

482days Expert Prediction Competition (after Sunday 15th April)

Don: 147 pts
Laurence: 141 pts

Our experts get 1 point for every correct result, and 3 points if they predict the exact score. (Although as they say: prediction is a mug’s game…)

April 20th, 2018 by