Blank Space: How The EIHL Title Race Has Been Reset (Again)

As recently as two weeks ago, there was talk that the EIHL title, while exciting, was Braehead’s to lose. They were a significant number of points ahead, had the supposedly “easier” schedule of the Gardiner Conference, and were looking fairly sure bets to retain the title. In fact, Jon Fearnley over at Frozen Steel Blog did some excellent number-crunching and concluded that there was a 70% chance Braehead were now champions-in-waiting. Thems some serious odds.

Now, Braehead are only one point clear of Nottingham, and the Panthers sit with a game in hand. Sheffield lurk a further two points behind with two games extra to play, and Cardiff and Belfast, too, are not out of the race yet by any stretch.

This weekend saw further unpredictable wrinkles thrown into the pot as Cardiff lost twice, Nottingham hauled themselves bodily back into the race with two dramatic victories over Belfast, and Sheffield just about kept ticking along. Oh yes-and Braehead lost to Hull.

In short…the results last weekend suddenly mean we have a whole new title race.

This needs appropriate investigation. But of course, such investigation needs to be treated with appropriate gravity…so we’ll take inspiration by using the work of one of the greatest wordsmiths of our generation, Ms Taylor Swift, and her masterwork “Blank Space” to make appropriate sense for each team. Here is the work in question, ably turned into a proper rock song by I Prevail (since I know a lot of you readers are rockers):

BRAEHEAD: It’ll leave you breathless

Or with a nasty scar…

The Clan are the team in the driving seat here. They’re the team that statistically have the best chance of winning the title, have a driving, passionate fanbase behind them, everything in place off the ice, good coaching…but now the pressure is going up notch upon notch, and it’s just starting to show a little. The Challenge Cup QF loss to Coventry, losses to Nottingham last week, Dundee at home this week…these are the little judders in a so-far silent running title challenge that could, if they’re not addressed, be the death of the Clan’s title hopes even allowing for the supposed “easier” Gardiner Conference (which isn’t “easier” at all, in fact).

The Clan have been sitting at the top of the standings for most of the year-they have an excellent chance to take the first title for a Scottish team in the EIHL era. But they haven’t won it yet-and after dominating the standings for most of he season, losing out on the title because of a form wobble in the final month or two will be a massive blow indeed. It’ll hurt them.

NOTTINGHAM: “Nice to meet you, where you been, I can show you incredible things…”

The Panthers have somewhat stealthily hauled themselves into serious title contention the past few weeks after a season which has seen fans in the East Midlands alternately love and bemoan their team. The arrival of Colby Cohen has certainly solidified things at the back, while two huge victories over fellow title challengers Belfast Giants and a win over Braehead have sucked up the lead the Clan had. A four-game win streak and winning 7 of their last ten also helps massively.

When the Panthers are on it, they’re one hell of a team. They appear to have new belief in them recently and Corey Neilson has got them looking ominously good coming into the stretch run. However, they can’t afford to slip up for a second, because there are three dangerous teams behind them, including:

SHEFFIELD: “Screaming, crying, perfect storms, I can make all the tables turn
Rose garden filled with thorns…”

The Steelers are a hard team to figure out. They are undoubtedly, like rivals Nottingham, a very, very good hockey team indeed. Currently on a six-game win-streak, they’re nipping at the Clan’s heels and just quietly picking points up seemingly un-noticed compared to all the sound and fury elsewhere. However-the main question with the Steelers is, like Braehead, what happens when things don’t go so well. They’ve gone through ups and downs this season and like any team the fanbase haven’t reacted particularly well to it-as the pressure ratchets up, will every little mistake be pounced on and over-analysed or will they continue their slow climb? With matches still to come against all their main title rivals and going from a win in the last few seconds v Coventry to a 6-0 win in Cardiff, the Steelers are a team of two identities. Which one they’ll settle on could be key for their title hopes the rest of the season.

BELFAST: “Boys only want love if it’s torture
Don’t say I didn’t say, I didn’t warn ya”

The season in Belfast has been nowhere near the calm, settled, confident race to the title of last time out. With players like Kevin Westgarth constantly coming in for fan criticism (Mark McCutcheon being the main target of fans’ ire) and even questions being raised over Steve Thornton’s tenure, a pair of heartbreaking losses in Nottingham won’t have helped the mood in the camp any. Despite the problems, though, the Giants are still there or thereabouts-but they’ll need to find the all-conquering spirit of last season to have any hope of retaining the Monteith Bowl this season.

CARDIFF: “So it’s gonna be forever, or it’s gonna go down in flames…”

The Devils have already achieved much this year, rocketing crowds back up at the Big Blue Tent and causing a jaded Cardiff fanbase to fall in love with their team again.

Recently, though, the Devils, like Braehead, have stuttered-losing heavily to Sheffield at home, going 4-1 down against Coventry before eventually losing in OT, losing away in Fife…like the Clan, they appear to be having their season blip at the worst possible time. They’re six points off the top with two games in hand, which means they’re still in with a chance but also that they have to go on a heck of a run against their fellow title hopefuls and not lose any other games (Jon Fearnley’s model had their chances at 9%, and you have to assume that’s dropped even further now). It can be done still, but maybe the Devils have more hope of silverware in the Challenge Cup or playoffs now, this season at least

Throwing another wrinkle into the mix, though, is this incident from Nottingham v Belfast last weekend:

That’s Nottingham’s Colby Cohen (black #55, on the ground) kicking out at Belfast’s Cody Brookwell, who then spears him. Both offences are currently awaiting a decision from the EIHL authorities which will likely see both men suspended, thus depriving both teams of a key defenceman just when they’re needed most.

The EIHL trophy is far from decided right now…but it’s still got a blank space, baby, and and five teams still vying to be the one who get to hear the words “I’ll write your name”.

This title race has once again twisted. How many more twists and turns will we see before season’s end?

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