EIHL 14/15 Review Part II: The Erhardt Conference

We’ve already looked back at the Gardiner Conference season. Now it’s time to look at the other five EIHL teams, in a conference that had angels passing, redemption songs and incredible turnarounds. It’s the Erhardt Conference.

NOTTINGHAM PANTHERS – TRAVEL SICKNESS 

“And after midnight we’re all the same
No glass shoe to bring us fame
Nobody to take the blame
We’re falling apart”

The Birthday Massacre: “Kill The Lights”

The Panthers this season were an endlessly frustrating team. When they were good, they were very good. When they were bad, they were awful. A season that saw the highs of Champions’ Hockey League competition and a memorable win against the DEL’s Hamburg Freezers coupled with the lows of failing to seriously be in the hunt for any trophies (not even making the playoff weekend at their own rink) means the Erhardt Conference trophy once scorned by the Panthers fans when they didn’t take it in more successful “Grand Slam winning” times is now being held up as consolation.

This offseason will be about reloading. It’ll also be about finding someone to take the blame for 14/15, and that responsibility will likely fall squarely on the shoulders of coach Corey Neilson. The Panthers have already begun signing players for the new season but have made no announcement on who will be behind the bench…admittedly it’s early, but the fact that they have already said that they’ll be “considering all the options” sounds ominous for the Panthers coach.

On the ice, the team simply never really settled. Craig Kowalski getting injured didn’t help the cause, but the roster turnover for the CHL competition, increased travelling and big-ticket players like David Clarke getting injured were killers early in the season. Later on, the team just wasn’t consistent enough, and suffered loss after loss to the supposedly “weaker” Gardiner Conference as early-season caustic comments about the Scottish teams came back to haunt them again and again. Bright spots were the play of Sam Oakford, Stevie Lee and young Brits Ollie Betteridge, Lewis Hook and Jordan Cownie, stepping up from the EPL…Cownie has already signed in Braehead and the Panthers will no doubt be after the other two. As far as imports went, Brandon Benedict was his usual dependable self, Chris Lawrence answered criticisms aplenty throughout the year, and Evan Mosey, unheralded at the beginning of the season, became a star and one of the Panthers most important players.

However, this will be an important offseason for the Panthers, as they decide whether or not to take the team in a different direction to the one it’s been for the past few years. A lot could hinge on the decision.

BELFAST GIANTS –  THANK YOU AND GOODNIGHT

I’m feeling stuck here, break it up, break it up.
A little low here, take it up, take it up.
I’m getting bored here,shake it up with me, now.”

Tonight Alive: “Thank You And Goodnight”

This was the same Giants team in large part as last season’s dominant run…but the result under Steve Thornton was very different. A team that saw much-heralded signing Kevin Westgarth simply fail to perform for large stretches of the year, Thornton hockey at times suck the life out of the joyful, enterprising squad who played last year under Paul Adey, and a team that fans never knew was going to turn up on any given night.

Some things in Belfast remained constant. Adam Keefe continued to be one of the best leaders if not THE best in the EIHL, causing havoc along with partner-in-crime Daryl Lloyd. Rob Sandrock’s swansong year saw him play as well as he ever has in the EIHL going forward and continue to terrorise goalies with his slapshot, and Carsen Chubak earned fan-favourite status with his performances in relief of Stephen Murphy when the latter was injured.

Ironically, we only saw the best of this Giants team in their penultimate game…a trip to Cardiff for the playoff quarter-final 2nd leg in which the Giants were imperious, unstoppable and looked more like the team that the Giants were last season. The loss on penalties in the playoff semi-final was a sad end to a season that held so much promise in August.

Players still performed well…Ray Sawada was a standout…but the Giants simply looked like this was an “after the Lord Mayor’s Show” season for this roster. This summer, like Nottingham, will see the Giants have to retool and rebuild…Giants fans will not accept another season like this one.

SHEFFIELD STEELERS – ANGELS PASSING

Mine is yours and yours is mine
There is no divide
In your honour”

Foo Fighters: “In Your Honour”

The Sheffield Steelers are once again EIHL league champions, streaking to the title thanks to riding a workhorse of a first line. In Colton Fretter, Michael Forney and EIHL Player of the Year Mathieu Roy they put together a terrifying first unit that could often win games by itself, backed up by an excellent season from Frank Doyle and his unheralded injury replacement Josh Unice and solid play in both zones from a blue-line led by Ben O’Connor and Darrell Hay throughout the season.

The Steelers also raliied behind the cause of Amy Usher, a fan and cancer sufferer, adopting her as a mascot and “guardian angel” throughout the season…the league title win against Cardiff barely days after she sadly succumbed to her illness was one of the most emotional title wins seen in many years. The Steelers worked their way throughout the season and were terrifyingly efficient at their best. Tyler Mosienko had his own quiet redemption story on the second line, and Jeff Legue’s return to EIHL action mid-season after moving to the EPL’s Sheffield Steeldogs ended in triumphant fashion with the league-winning goal.

However, it didn’t all run smoothly for Sheffield. A great comeback against Nottingham in the semi finals of the Challenge Cup was followed by a loss to Cardiff in their own arena in the Challenge Cup Final, followed by a loss to Coventry in the playoff finals to break any hope of a dominant season. However, they’ve already started to build for next season in the hope of carrying on the momentum – Mathieu Roy is already back in Sheffield for two more years, possibly the most important single player in the EIHL, and Gerad Adams is ready to build for further success.

The Steelers seem settled for a while yet, but there may be just a little thought of “it was a great season, but it could’ve been so much better” as they head into this summer.

CARDIFF DEVILS – REDEMPTION SONGS

Are we out of the woods yet, are we out of the woods yet, are we out of the woods?
Are we in the clear yet, are we in the clear yet, are we in the clear yet, in the clear, yes, good”

Taylor Swift: “Out Of The Woods”

There has been no better story this season than that of the Cardiff Devils, though those in Coventry will no doubt argue strongly for their case. Last season things in South Wales were as dark as they’d been in a while – then Todd Kelman and his ownership group turned things around in a way not even the most optimistic Devils fan could ever have foreseen.

Andrew Lord’s first coaching year was one for the ages-the Vancouverite player-coach put together a team that was not only ideal for the tight confines of the Big Blue Tent but equally capable of competing on the bigger ice surfaces elsewhere in the league. Backed by an off-ice team that made Devils fans fall in love with their team again and created a culture in which representing Wales and the Red Army was paramount and what the team valued above all else, and boy did it work.

Standout players were Joey Martin up front, EIHL Defenseman of the Year Andrew Hotham and Tyson Marsh on the blueline, and Ben Bowns finishing his ascension to true elite status among EIHL netminders. But it’s hard to pick out just a few players from a team that quickly became the most connected with its fanbase in the EIHL, with the possible exception of Fife and Braehead. Doug Clarkson proved any doubters at the beginning of the season wrong as he became a cult hero, Trevor Hendrikx made a season of smashing opposition players through the boards must-watch hockey and Chris Culligan was the personification of quiet competence.

The Devils were rewarded for their efforts with the Challenge Cup, and fought for the league title until passed by Sheffield, but the key thing about this season was that it brought the fun factor and belief back to Cardiff. Todd Kelman, Andrew Lord and his off-ice team have laid the foundations for a juggernaut to be built in South Wales to rival those of the Devils history over the next few years, and with a new ice arena to be opened at the end of this year if all goes to plan, things can only get better still.

The Devils aren’t just out of the woods – this season has put them back on the road to the mountain top.

COVENTRY BLAZE – THE WEBER REVOLUTION

these are my words that i’ve never said before
i think i’m doing okay
i’m so afraid of waking
please don’t shake me”

Staind: So Far Away

The Coventry Blaze’s season was turned around by one man this year. Chuck Weber, hired in December to replace Marc Lefebvre, who had assembled a talented roster on paper that looked disspirited, disconnected and clueless on the ice and divided into cliques and unhappy off it, performed a turn-around that nobody could reasonably have expected, not even those in the Blaze organisation who hired him to clear up the mess their “safe” appointment of Lefebvre had initially made in a desperate and last-ditch attempt to save a club coming apart at the seams.

Weber did what Lefebvre failed to – saw the roster’s biggest strength in Netminder Of The Year Brian Stewart and built upon his broad shoulders, instituting a system that was suffocating, lacked flair and creativity for the most part and was about as pretty to watch as an autopsy but by golly, was it effective. The Blaze became playoff champions despite having the lowest “goals for” average in the league by some margin, riding mainly on the stellar play of Stewart and the attacking efforts of Ryan O’Marra in a system built almost solely on hard work and simple defensive play.

Was Weber the “genius” Blaze fans like to portray him as? His system would suggest not – the entire ethos of it was based on playing “not to lose” rather than to win.

The genius was not in the system…any team can try to shut down a game and ride a hot goalie given a little luck…Montreal have gone to the top end of the NHL doing it this season, although they have the offensive flair to profit when the goalie has an off-night, which could have been Coventry’s Achilles heel.

The genius came in Weber realising that this was what his team was most capable of doing so quickly. With the exception of Ryan O’Marra, offensive flair was lacking…the team lost so many one-goal games it was untrue, and night after night, despite Blaze fans claiming otherwise, it was Brian Stewart who stood out as the star and probably the main reason for the team having a chance to win every night.

But what this Blaze team did have was the effort and workrate to shut down games if the coach used them right – and Weber got them to show it in a way they were either unable or unwilling to do for Lefebvre. By emphasising a system that focused on limiting the “harder” saves Stewart had to make over all else, the Blaze made his job easier, Weber played to the biggest strength his team had and negated the lack of offensive flair. Slowly, the results began to come.

There can be no better demonstration of Weber’s system working than the playoff semi-final v Belfast – a dull, dour game that Coventry squeezed the life out of, only attacking when they had to. It’s, ironically, the same system Blaze fans used to be so critical of used by Rick Strachan in Hull, or close to the dreaded “trap”. But it was the perfect system for this Blaze team, and they implemented it beautifully.

Against Sheffield in the playoff final, Weber finally let the leash off his players, and they used their freedome to blow the Steelers away as Sheffield simply didn’t turn up for large parts of the biggest game of the year.

Now, with Brian Stewart already signed up for two more years, the biggest question in Coventry is…can they keep their Messiah? Weber has a contract offer on the table, but bigger teams are sure to come calling. If they do, all the good work could be undone, which could make for a nervous summer in Coventry once the euphoria dies down.

However, if Weber returns, then the Blaze are well and truly capable of heating up once again. However ugly it may be to watch them do so. But the simple truth is…Coventry need him far more than he needs them.

That’s the end of the Erhardt Conference review, and the end of the 2014/15 EIHL season. On to the World Championships we go.

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