Why We Were All Wrong About The Gardiner Conference (& 4 Other Things We Learned This Weekend)

The regular season is now off and running in the EIHL, and with that comes the chance to see players tested in the heat of battle under “proper” game conditions. And also the chance to have every pre-season thought, prediction and “educated” opinion well and truly thrown out of the window.

Here, in what will be the first of a weekly series, are Five Things We Learned in the EIHL This Weekend.
1. We were all wrong about the Gardiner Conference.

Remember how everyone said that Braehead would run away with the “northern” EIHL conference and Fife, Hull, Edinburgh and Dundee would just be making up the numbers? Remember that time we thought that the Erhardt teams would “run all over” all of the Gardiner Conference?
Well…the evidence so far says otherwise.

Saturday night, Braehead beat Belfast 3-2. Yup-that Belfast-the one that was supposed to pretty much destroy the Erhardt, never mind the Gardiner. Dundee pushed Coventry all the way, finally losing in a shootout. Even supposed whipping boys Hull pushed their aristocratic Panthers neighbours (the ones who have David Ling so according to a few commentators should be given the trophy now) hard before going down 4-2.

On Sunday, meanwhile, Fife came down to Coventry and lost 4-3 in a pulsating game that required a moment of magic or two from Brad Leeb to win it, while Edinburgh (yes, that Edinburgh who were supposed to be making up the numbers) beat the “Gardiner powerhouse” Braehead.

What we’ve learned this weekend is that teams in the Gardiner not named Braehead are a lot closer in ability to the Erhardt than some have thought. Sure, defenders of the South will doubtless point to Coventry missing players through injury, early-season bonding, or any other argument they can find to say that this was just a blip.

But on Sunday night the Fife team I saw was one that was light-years better than last season’s, much more organised, much more hard working and, but for a sloppy first ten minutes of play, could have been walking out of the Skydome with at least a point. Don’t forget that three of the five Gardiner Conf teams, too, still have imports to come in-if they can do this while short of some of their top players, then there’s no reason to suggest they can’t do the same when all the teams are at full-strength too.

Maybe this weekend has made a few EIHL spectators take the supposed “mickey mouse conference” a bit more seriously. Because based on the evidence of the scores and my first look at Fife (supposedly one of the followers in the Gardiner) they really should.

2. Shea Guthrie being given the C in Coventry has made him better, not worse.

After a relatively quiet pre-season, a few Blaze fans were already starting to wonder if Shea Guthrie’s game would be affected by his being given the “C” this season.

Sunday night was a clear indication that, far from being a problem, Guthrie’s new letter is an inspired decision.

Last season, the Carleton Place, ON native carried the Blaze on his back for long periods offensively-a state of affairs which no doubt led in no small part to his being rewarded this offseason. After a quiet few games, Blaze fans on forums were still unsure whether it would have a positive or negative effect on his play.

On Sunday, their questions were answered. Guthrie was a force of nature. In the first ten minutes, he scored the opening goal, landed several big hits and forechecked like a demon, causing the Flyers to cough up the puck more than once. This was a player who had clearly decided that the letter on his chest placed a responsibility on him to lead by example, and he looked like a player reveling in his new role all night long.

I was amazed this morning to see Blaze fans criticising this new Guthrie, arguing that his place was “scoring goals” and that he was “trying too hard”.

Sorry, people…but think about this for a second.

If you can come up with ANY logical reason why a player expanding his game to encompass all aspects of it, leading by example and showing just how hard he’s prepared to work is “trying too hard” then I’d love to hear it.

If not, just enjoy the new, even-further-improved Guthrie. Because he will be a bigger player than ever for the Blaze this season.
3. It’s always John DeCaro’s fault.

At least if you’re a Sheffield fan. The Steelers goalie came under some stick after Saturday’s loss to Cardiff for inconsistent play in the net-stick which hasn’t fully gone away despite Sheffield rebounding to beat the Devils on penalty shots on Sunday night.

DeCaro’s never been a goalie that’s looked fully convincing at the Skydome-he appears to be one that benefits from a solid defence in front of him more than being a genuine matchwinner. But there are five players in front of him who have an equal influence on the game-if they’re letting shots through, then DeCaro will likely let a couple of bad ones through due to law of averages. If he starts doing it once or twice a game, Sheffield, then you can criticise. Until then, remember he was part of a team that took you to third in the league last season, so he can’t be that bad, all things considered.

4. Mac Faulkner, not Devin Didiomete, is Cardiff’s new star.

All the offseason focus in South Wales has been on Devin Didiomete and his Twitter antics, but now the season is off and running it’s centre Mac Faulkner who’s very quickly come to the fore. The native of King City, Ontario has none of the off-ice glitz, glamour and sheer mouth of his team-mate, but he’s going to be far more dangerous to opposition goalies this season along with his partner-in-crime Chris Blight. A hat-trick against Sheffield on Sunday followed two assists on Saturday as the big centre gave Sheffield’s defence a torrid time. Didiomete, meanwhile, came up with one assist but a whole lot of mouth as his ongoing Twitter war with Dave Simms continues-a war which frankly makes both of them look a little silly.

5. The hockey starts here:

Sure, pre-season games are fun to be at purely because it gives both fans and players a chance to get back in the routine, get a first look at both their new team-mates and new opposition, and it signifies that the long, tortuous summer days with too much sunshine and not enough ice (except in drinks) are gone again…

But there’s something about the first home game where points are actually on the line. There’s a buzz around the rink that doesn’t hang around even for pre-season games-the warm-up seems a little more focused, the rink lights seem a little brighter and even the sound of the skates seems to be a little louder, never mind the crowd. The hockey season has finally truly begun again.

From here to April, every game will mean something, whether it be Cup battles, league points or playoff victory. Judging from the looks of the first weekend, there’ll be more surprises, controversy and discussion than you can shake an Easton S19 at.

Which is great for us commentator/bloggers, of course.
There’s your five lessons from this weekend. While you’re around, why not have a look at murphonice.com and skybluehockey.com-blogs by my Blaze TV partners Aaron Murphy and Stuart Coles. Both of them are well worth a regular read…

Chasing Dragons will be back tomorrow considering the Blaze’s reaction to yet another injury over the weekend…

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