Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Surprises, Streaks & Slumps

This past weekend seen a lot of things happen in the AIHL, surprise results, shock scorelines & form slumps that continued to haunt teams & fans alike. Newcastle stamped their claim as definite challenger (if it wasn't already) for the Goodall Cup, the Sydney Bears did what no other team has done, Gold Coast got back onto the winners list & the Knights continue to struggle. An action packed weekend of hockey action, I will try & fit all of it in.

Perhaps the most surprising, well to me anyway, was the manner in which Newcastle handed Melbourne Ice their defeat on Saturday afternoon. 5-1 the final scoreline in what was a great game of hockey from the home side, which started from opening face off where it took only a minute for Newcastle to hit the lead. Fast paced hockey was the flavour of the night, with both teams moving the puck around well as described by Hewitt Sports.

David Upton - Newcastle North Stars
Heading into the match I felt Newcastle had everything to prove, Melbourne had once again claimed some silverware a week back & on home ice the North Stars wanted to show who is boss north of the border. They did just that in a crushing victory.

Their streak now extends to double figures, 10 games on the trot as they stand alone as the main figure in the AIHL as we head towards the pointy end of the season.

Apart from the play between the defenders & forwards one of the areas I mentioned during the week was the importance of goaltender Olivier Martin for this match, but it wasn't only Martin getting recognition for his on ice actions, Ice goalie Phillips was as well. 

A scoreline of 5-1 shouldn't take away from some terrific work by the goaltender on the night (3rd period note worthy), things might have looked different if a decision had of gone the way of Phillips at the end of the 2nd period. Controversy arose as the Melbourne side believed time had run out before the puck crossed the line, which was mentioned by the Ice via twitter.

The goal would stand & Newcastle would eventually walk away deserved winners after a solid team display which saw David Upton pick up two goals on the night. Is Newcastle now the team to beat after such an emphatic win?

Another area worth noting is the PIMs Melbourne Ice seem to be building recently, is it a much larger issue that they need to address? Heading to the box might not be an issue against teams ranked below them & ones they have the measure over, but it might be a cause for concern once we reach AIHL Playoffs. It played a factor over the weekends matches as well as the Champions League the week before, it's an interesting discussion point certainly.

The other big news story over the match days was the results in both Perth & Melbourne, the Sydney Bears picked up two wins over the weekend & now stand alone, alone in terms of being the first team to accomplish this road trip with a 100% winning record. The two wins (6-4 v Thunder, 2-1 v Mustangs) gives the Bears a sniff at second spot in the Bauer Conference, it's only a sniff at the moment as I feel a lot of other results will need to go the Bears way for them to make the jump, if anything it has given them & their loyal fans hope.

What makes the back to back wins more exciting is the loss which the Ice Dogs endured on Sunday afternoon, this means the two crosstown rivals will battle it out for that important second spot in the conference & sets up this Saturday's Sydney derby nicely. Will the Bears grab 3 in a row, or will the Ice Dogs bounce back?

Photo: Paul Kelly - Shutter Speed Designs
With Perth going down to the Bears at home where does it leave them in the playoff picture? Most predicted the Thunder to be a team which would be vying for that second playoff spot as we entered the second half of the season, now things are starting to look a little different. They have a VERY tough fixture ahead for them which includes Newcastle (home), Mustangs & Ice away in Melbourne, three games which will definitely test the new franchise. 

North Stars & Ice are the benchmark teams in the AIHL, Mustangs coming off a coaching change & the loss to the Bears couldn't have come at the wrong time for the team out west. How vital will the games in hand now prove? I could see the Thunder coming out of the next 3 fixtures 1-2, but it could well be 0-3 if they don't bring their A game against the Mustangs who will be looking to finish off the season strong.

Gold Coast & Canberra also battled it out in the late fixture up in Brisbane Saturday night, the Blue Tongues picked up an important victory, 5-1 the final score, which sets them up well for the weeks break this round. They then face the Knights & Ice Dogs away respectively, two winnable games which could relaunch the clubs fading playoff hopes. With a lack of depth being the common theme among the twitter world as to why the Tongues won't make a playoff run, finish off the month of July with 3 wins in a row & the 'friendlier' August fixture could put those predictions to the back burner.

Canberra continue to slip this season, having gone 1-9 in the last 10 games things are definitely shaky in the nations capital. With things not looking any easier for the remainder of the month, Adelaide, Gold Coast, Sydney (Bears) & Newcastle is the fixture ahead for the Knights, some gritty hockey to grind out results is what is needed for the Canberra side starting with the Adrenaline at home this Saturday. Pride in the jersey is what's at stake now.

The only other team which played over the weekend was the Melbourne Mustangs, straight from the get go things looked a little different. Some people knew, some people didn't, but Bill Wilkinson was no longer the Mustangs coach (later confirmed by Hewitt Sports). An interesting decision by the Mustangs & one which saddens me, I had the pleasure of meeting Bill & have the utmost respect for him. Coming into the AIHL late in the Mustangs pre season was never going to be an easy transition for any coach in their first season, inconsistent results would eventually be the downfall of Wilkinson, although the agreement was on mutual grounds. 

Where to from here for the Mustangs? They have once again given Steve Laforet the opportunity to take over at the helm of the club. We all know the team is on the younger side with the average age roughly around 22 years old, it was always a work in progress. Going by fans comments from the game on Sunday afternoon it was a much improved performance from the Melbourne side, even in a loss, so the decision on the surface, might be the right one. One thing I do know with sporting teams is when a coach departs a club it usually sparks emotion & added energy into a team to perform above their own levels of skill. Mustangs fans will be hoping this isn't a one off scenario, and the level of play can continue to grow in an upward motion behind Laforet.

With the results from the weekend it has now sparked added interest across both divisions, talk of the Bears making a late playoff run in the Bauer Conference. Blue Tongues now back in the mix for the second place in the Easton & the Thunder looking to bounce back in three tough fixtures coming up. Things are starting to heat up right across the board in the AIHL, no better way to keep that going than the Melbourne & Sydney derbies this weekend.

By Andrew Macdougall

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