EIHL: The race for honours starts to heat up

John Kurtz hits the ice for Belfast Giants ahead of their key game against Cardiff Devils (Pic: William Cherry / Presseye)
John Kurtz hits the ice for Belfast Giants ahead of their key game against Cardiff Devils (Pic: William Cherry / Presseye)

It’s looks like the Elite League title is heading back to Wales.

Cardiff Devils continue to set a hot pace at the top, and their seven-point lead over Belfast Giants with a game in hand, effectively means they hold all the aces as the teams head into the run-in.

Dundee Stars are zoning in on their bid for a place in the play-offs (Pic: Derek Black)

Dundee Stars are zoning in on their bid for a place in the play-offs (Pic: Derek Black)

Devils’ 3-2 OT win in Belfast on Saturday, courtesy of Joey Martin’s sudden death winning goal, was a significant step towards uncorking the champagne.

The chasing pack are doing all they can to keep the pressure on Andrew Lord’s team, but their race is almost certainly going to focus on the runners-up spot – and that in itself could be fascinating.

Traditional powerhouses, Sheffield and Nottingham, are flapping around mid mid-table – seventh-placed Panthers can’t catch fire, and Steelers, in sixth, continue to fritter away points in a one-step-forward-one-step-back approach.

Their places as challengers to Belfast in second spot have been taken by Manchester, Fife and Guildford.

Ryan Finnerty’s Storm team seem to have re-ignited once more with a fine 7-5 win over Steelers and a 9-1 hammering of a lost looking Coventry Blaze.

Storm, the early pacesetters, are now back up to third place, three points ahead of Flyers whose games in hand are key to their final league standing.

They have five matches to catch up on over Manchester and Belfast - they travel to Ireland on Friday night looking for a win against the only team whose scalp has eluded them this season – and four in hand over Guildford.

If Todd Dutiaume’s side scoop the points from those games, then Fife will finish higher in the standings than ever, and hit the play-offs brimming with confidence, but the league is so tight that a couple of defeats and they’ll plummet to seventh faster than a stone being thrown into a well.

Newcomers Guildford Flames are certainly on course for the post-season championship.

The league newcomers have motored along quite comfortably in mid-table all season, and chalked up another four-point weekend, defeating Coventry and MK Lightning with goals to spare each evening.

While the high flyers look ahead with optimism, the same cannot be said for the teams scrambling for one of the play-off berths.

Braehead Clan hold tenancy of eighth spot just now, but they must be nervously watching Dundee Stars who are one point behind them and with three games in hand.

Clan finally broke their Fife hoodoo with a narrow 3-2 win on Saturday, but they are feeling the heat from Omar Pacha’s Tayside team which is motoring into solid form right now.

They went down to defeat in Nottingham, but skated to an easy win over Edinburgh to keep the points tally ticking over as Operation Play-Offs swung into full action.

Of the four teams outwith the top eight, Stars have, by far, the best shot of grabbing one of the qualification berths.

The same can’t be said of Coventry Blaze. Rooted in tenth spot on a seven-game losing streak, their weekend results were nothing short of disastrous - that 9-1 hammering at the hands of Manchester, and a 7-4 capitulation on home ice to Guildford.

They missed out last year and it looks like the hockey season will be curtailed early once again unless Blaze can find a spark to light a do or die qualification bid.

Newcomers MK Lightning have fallen to 11th spot and are currently skating a player down following Matt Nickerson’s hefty 20-game ban which also saw his contract torn up.

Lightning won’t however finish last.

The wooden spoon was engraved a long time ago and sent to Murrayfield Ice Rink where Edinburgh Capitals have managed just four wins in 40 starts.

The weekend saw them shut out on home ice, 3-0 at the hand of Milton Keynes, and two more players have departed what is left of the team.

Defenceman Nikita Kolesnikovs and forward Pavel Vorobyev, their most experienced player by far, quit to play in Poland.

The club is looking to make moves before the signing deadline, but Caps are 22 points behind Lightning, and 29 points off a play-off place.. It’s going to be a hard sell ...

>> Results

Sunday – Coventry Blaze 4 Guildford Flames 7; Edinburgh Capitals 0 Milton Keynes Lightning 3; Fife Flyers 5 Braehead Clan 2; Nottingham Panthers 3 Dundee Stars 0; Sheffield Steelers 5 Manchester Storm 7

Saturday – Belfast Giants 2 Cardiff Devils 3 (After Overtime); Braehead Clan 3 Fife Flyers 2; Dundee Stars 5 Edinburgh Capitals 4; Manchester Storm 9 Coventry Blaze 1; Milton Keynes Lightning 2 Guildford Flames 5; Sheffield Steelers 5 Nottingham Panthers 4