Winston Churchill had a point. With around two months left in the EIHL season, teams are already starting to cast their eyes towards the playoffs and the crucial time March when titles and playoff places can be won or lost. But in doing so, they should be starting with this weekend, because yesterday, today and tomorrow see the real start of the title run-in and also the playoff chase, with crucial games everywhere and storylines aplenty to take a look at for most of the EIHL. So let’s run through them.
BRAEHEAD AND NOTTINGHAM: HEARTS AND MINDS
The Clan have a test unlike some of the other teams in the EIHL this weekend-one to see how they handle their first big setback of their season. The Challenge Cup Quarter Final loss to Coventry on Wednesday after leading the first leg 3-1 was not just mildly unexpected, it was the kind of shock result and performance that can set the butterflies going in title-chasing squads.
The Clan have no time to rest, though…a home tie with Edinburgh tonight is followed by a monumental trip to a surging Nottingham on Sunday…the Panthers are just four points behind the Clan with a game in hand at the top and are coming off a shutout of Belfast in the Odyssey last night. In short, if the Clan allow themselves to be rattled at all by Wednesday’s loss it could have huge consequences in the title race.
The mind games have already begun, with Corey Neilson repeatedly accusing the Clan of having an “easier run in” and the title being “theirs to lose” as the Panthers coach tries to gain any advantage he can. The Panthers win in Belfast would have given them a huge boost already…but closing in to within two points of the top spot with a win on Sunday just might cause the Clan to wobble a little and allow the Panthers to growl a little louder as the Purple Army feel the hot breath of the Black Cats on their neck.
CARDIFF AND SHEFFIELD: THE CHASING PACK LOCK HORNS
Speaking of huge games, Cardiff take on Sheffield at the Big Blue Tent tomorrow. As if one game with a title hopeful facing another wasn’t enough this weekend, there’s three (one of which we already know the result of). Sheffield and Cardiff both face tricky lead-in games tonight as the Devils face Hull away and Sheffield face a Coventry team on a high after an unlikely win in Braehead, but the Steelers have their task made trickier by an injury to starting netminder and key stalwart Frank Doyle…hastily-sourced replacement Josh Unice will have to settle quickly as the Blaze will fancy their chances of giving him a torrid debut. Tomorrow night is the big one, though…with Cardiff and Sheffield locked together on points just behind the top two, any point gained in matches against each other could be HUGELY valuable come the end of the season-the games from here on in just get more important.
COVENTRY: ANOTHER SHOT AT REDEMPTION
The Blaze are on a high at the moment. After a superb come-from-behind CC Quarter Final victory in Braehead on Wednesday, this weekend sees the West Midlanders with (another) chance to turn their season around with two games against a Sheffield facing their own roster issues (as mentioned above) and a home tie against a Dundee side just two points below them. However, there’s absolutely no room for error here-the Stars don’t play tonight and a Blaze loss in either game will be a missed opportunity to gain some ground both on Edinburgh above them and claw their way away from the bottom spot. Indeed, a loss on both nights could see a two-point swing towards the bottom for the Blaze. They need to start taking these chances now as the playoff race heats up.
DUNDEE: SIGNS OF LIFE
The Stars have begun to claw themselves back into relevance recently by pulling off several key wins, but this weekend in Coventry their lone game takes on some major significance, particularly if the Blaze lose tonight. With Coventry being the team immediately above them, and only a two-point gap at the time of writing, a win tomorrow in Coventry will potentially bring the Stars back up into equal-points contact with the rest of the league and finish the job of overhauling the massive gap (10 points at one point) between them at the bottom and the rest of the EIHL above them. It’s a huge away trip for the Stars…and a game Coventry have to win, too.
EDINBURGH, HULL, FIFE: SCRAPPING FOR POINTS
The “other three” teams still to play this weekend are arguably the least interesting storylines…but before any of their fans get annoyed, “least interesting” is a relative term on a weekend where every single team has “must-win” games. The Caps, Flyers and Stingrays are in the unenviable position as far as the league goes of not being in the title race, but just about being able to hold their heads above water into the P the O race. However, they still require the points just as much as anyone else does-and Hull in particular can do themselves a massive favour, since they have four games in hand already and can gain ground on Fife and Sheffield above them.
But they can also have an impact on the title race-Hull face Cardiff, Fife face Belfast and Edinburgh face Braehead. Pull off a result in any of those games and it massively helps any other title chaser.
This weekend has big storylines all over. It’s the start of the “real” run-in.
In short, it’s the kind of weekend that can have massive implications on a season.