With NIHL North at its halfway point, C2C takes a look at what we can expect from the rest of the season:
Solway Sharks: Following their promotion from Division Two, Sharks were thought by many to be capable of making an immediate impact on NIHL1 and they haven’t disappointed – losing just once so far. The prolific pair of Adam Reynolds and Nathan Salem lead the scoring charts, while defensemen John Connolly and Craig Mitchell have proved shrewd additions. Will prove a tough nut to crack in the battle for honours.
Billingham Stars: The reigning Double winners are in the mix once again. After retaining most of their successful roster from last time around, Stars added EPL quality in Michael Bowman and Stephen Wallace – with Bowman in particular looking a class act. Despite losing netminder James Flavell to the EPL, Stars continue to rack up the wins. Being able to roll four lines served them well last season and if they avoid injuries they’ll push Sharks all the way.
Blackburn Hawks: After finishing third in 2011/12 and reaching the play-off final, Hawks looked poised for success. A less than impressive summer recruitment policy left their roster looking much weaker and early results were mixed. Did put together a six game winning run, but came down to earth with a bump over Christmas with two defeats. Title talk looks fanciful and will need play-off or cup success to back up some lofty pre-season claims. Coach Jared Owen’s latest outburst suggests all isn’t well.
Sutton Sting: Have made an impressive start to life in NIHL1. Sting have plenty of firepower with the likes of Shaun Ashton, Richie Oliver and Jamie Spurr in their ranks, but it could be Coach Ian Johnson’s two latest additions who prove to be their most valuable – Chris Sykes and Dmitri Zimozdra. Sykes arrived from the Elite League’s Hull Stingrays while netminder Zimozdra has returned to NIHL after a spell with the EPL’s Sheffield Steeldogs. Sting could be a handful in the second half of the campaign.
Coventry Blaze: Made an awful start to the season, winning just twice in twelve games. The arrival of Josh Bruce from the EPL’s Slough Jets coupled with the return of influential forward Rikki Bryniarski, has seen Blaze improve in recent weeks. Should have enough about them to avoid the drop zone, but will probably struggle to push for the play-offs.
Whitley Warriors: Lost a number of key players and have struggled to attract replacements, leaving Coach Garry Dowd relying on promising youngsters to fill his roster. Finally snapped a long losing run with a draw at Sheffield which could prove to be a turning point. Will need the likes of DJ Good and Callum Watson to rack up the points, otherwise could find themselves drawn into a relegation battle.
Sheffield Spartans: On paper Spartans looked to have a squad capable of mounting a play-off challenge. Defensive weaknesses have proved their undoing and they’ll need to tighten up in the New Year. Showed signs of improvement with a win and a draw over the festive period, but must take advantage of some winnable games during January if they’re to avoid the threat of relegation.
Telford Titans: Hindered by a late start to their season, Titans have picked up in recent weeks. Very hard to beat on home ice, they’ll need to find a way of improving their form on the road if they’re to repeat last year’s run to the play-offs. With fixtures coming thick and fast in the second half of the season, it’s probably unrealistic to expect them to make the top four, but they’ll probably have a huge say in where other teams finish.
Trafford Metros: Have won just twice all season and look certainties for relegation to NIHL2. The return of Jamie Rogerson is a welcome boost, but need a miracle to avoid the drop.
The race to reach NIHL1 is a four-way fight between Nottingham Lions, Sheffield Senators, Solihull Barons and Deeside Dragons. Lions look favourites to take automatic promotion, but it’s difficult to call who’ll clinch the play-off slot. Senators have been the surprise package of the season so far, while Barons and Dragons could be argued to have under-performed. Barons have steadily been adding to their roster and should finish the campaign strongly, though Deeside’s capture of Jordan Bannon from the EPL’s Telford Tigers can only strengthen their challenge.