The Belfast Giants may have won the league title, but that doesn’t mean that the EIHL is merely playing out its string before the playoffs get going in a few weeks-on the contrary, in fact. With only thirteen points separating second and ninth places, this is one of the closest EIHL seasons yet below Belfast’s runaway success at the top, and there’s still a dogfight going on for playoff quarter-final seedings as everyone tries to give themselves what (in theory) would be the easiest possible game.
However, the real story is down at the bottom end of the table, where there’s one hell of a scrap developing for the playoff spots. Between Coventry in 6th and Fife in 9th, there are a mere five points, with only three of the four teams able to make the post-season. There’s also one hell of a scrap for the Gardiner Conference trophy (and thus the 2nd seed in the playoffs) with only three points between Dundee, Braehead and Hull (however, with three games in hand at the top of the conference table Dundee definitely have the advantage in that fight). There’s even a chance for Hull that they could finish in ninth in the final league table but make the playoffs by virtue of being the conference champions, forcing the team finishing in eighth out of the post season, such is the insanity of the EIHL seeding/points-scoring system.
Here’s the current situation down at the bottom:
6. Coventry (48 points, 5 games left, possible maximum 58)
7. Hull (46 points, five games left, possible maximum 56)
8. Cardiff (45 points, 5 games left, possible maximum 55)
9. Fife (44 points, 7 games left, possible maximum 58).
Above this group, there’s a gap of four points to Braehead in 5th, so although we can’t rule them out of being dragged down into this group, they need to win three of their remaining 6 games to assure themselves of a playoff place, and so realistically, their danger of missing the playoffs, while still there, is slight.
Let’s look at these four teams individually as we try and work out which one of these will be the unlucky ones.
COVENTRY: Remaining fixtures: Dundee (H), Cardiff (A), Nottingham (H), Sheffield (A), Cardiff (H)
Despite being the team currently in sixth place and thus supposedly the most well-placed, the Blaze are a team who probably have one of the toughest run-ins this season-all the teams they face have beaten them more than once this season and having to face Nottingham and Sheffield in two of potentially the most important games of the season does them no favours, as well as a Dundee side for whom every point counts in the Gardiner Conference race. The two games that stand out massively, though, are those against the Devils…they’re both playoff-race four-pointers for both teams. The Blaze need to win at least three out of these five to be assured of a playoff spot, and really need to win both against Cardiff. If not, then they could find themselves relying on other teams to keep their heads above playoff water.
HULL: Remaining fixtures: Sheffield (H), Fife (H), Dundee (A), Sheffield (A), Sheffield (H)
There’s no two ways about it-every game for the Stingrays right now is a do-or-die affair. Facing Sheffield three times in the last five, they HAVE to take a result in at least one of those, either in their next game or in a potential “win or go home” game on the last day of the season. The game that stands out above all others, though, is the Flyers’ visit next weekend. A win for the Flyers in that game could deal a bodyblow to the Stingrays’ playoff hopes and destroy the slim chance they have of qualifying as Gardiner winners once and for all. For the Stingrays now, every game is a potential elimination game, and every loss will simply squeeze the noose tighter.
CARDIFF: Remaining fixtures: Belfast (A), Coventry (H), Braehead (A), Edinburgh (H), Coventry (A)
The Devils are currently the team on the hot-seat, and like Hull, will need every point they can get to make the playoffs. Belfast away is a nightmarish start to their run-in, but the two games against Coventry stand out like beacons in this set of five. Like the Blaze, the Devils simply cannot afford to lose either of them if they want to keep their playoff destiny in their own hands…the only positive for them is that Hull have to face Sheffield three of five times-those in South Wales will be begging the Steelers to do them a favour if they win any less than four out of five. Devils fans will be on tenterhooks for every single game-with a potential last-day playoff decider in Coventry already standing out as a truly monumental scrap waiting to happen.
FIFE: Remaining Fixtures: Edinburgh (H), Nottingham (A), Hull (A), Dundee (A), Belfast (H), Braehead (A), Braehead (H)
The Flyers are currently the ones missing out on the playoffs, but have the advantage of a one point gap to eighth and four possible points (two games) in hand-take a point from either one and they’ve potentially closed it. It’s not an easy run-in by any means, with Belfast, Nottingham and a double-header against Braehead making up four of their remaining seven. With four of the seven remaining games also on the road, they face a task just like all the other teams-one that they have to approach full-bloodedly and fighting tooth-and-nail for every point. However, given that they were eleven points back from the playoff positions just a few weeks ago, the Flyers have already scared the living crap out of the teams above them. The biggest game of these already stands out-it’s the game in Hull next weekend. Win that, and the Fifers will take a massive step towards a playoff spot.
So who misses out?
Hull fans are in by far the most dangerous position at the moment-however, if they can win their two remaining Gardiner Conference games they will put some pressure on Dundee and Braehead for the title, gain a vital two points on Fife and switch all the pressure onto the Devils and Blaze not to lose-lose either of those, however, and the door narrows massively.
Fife are arguably the team most in control of their own destiny-all they have to do is win their game in hand and match the results of the teams closest above them (currently Cardiff and Hull), and they’re in. Beating the Stingrays would be a massive step towards completing an incredible chase for the playoffs.
Coventry will be looking over their shoulders-they’re currently in the best position in the table but lose either one (or, in the worst case, both) games v Cardiff and they’ll be right back down in the mire. It is still very possible indeed that the Blaze could miss the playoffs altogether if they take a single mis-step.
Cardiff, too, will be panicking. Lose those two Coventry games and they’ll be watching Hull’s results with eagle eyes, as the Stingrays are the ones who could most likely be the ones to drop out of the playoff spot right now. However, they’ll be hoping the Sheffield Steelers and Fife Flyers both do them a massive favour if they do so.
Simply put-the playoff points mark is already set right now-if any of the teams reaches 55 points over the next three weekends, they’re guaranteed to be in. But that will change on a daily basis.
Right now, more than any time, points mean playoffs. And losing could mean you go home.
Buckle up, EIHL fans. It’s gonna be one hell of a playoff race.