Last year, Cardiff Devils scooped their first league title, and 12 months on, they’re looking good to defend their crown with a little over a month to go.
With play-off qualification secured, the Devils have a handy eight-point lead at the top of the Elite League, and at the time of writing, also have a game in hand. With 11 games still to play, it is technically possible for any of the top seven to overhaul the Devils, but more realistically, the field of contenders probably consists of three other teams: Manchester Storm, Belfast Giants and Fife Flyers.
Given their lead at the top of the table, it is no surprise that Cardiff are the favourites among ice hockey fans who like to place a wager, but we can expect their title rivals to attract some support in the closing weeks of the season.
Manchester are their closest challengers. Powered by arguably the best forward line-up in the Elite League, the Storm have run away with the Patton Conference and certainly have the forward power and the momentum to catch the Devils. Dane Byers, Mike Hammond, Matt Beca and leading scorer Luke Moffat fill four of the top five spots in the Elite League points charts, and a nine-game winning streak has taken them to second in the standings.
Where the Storm struggle is in defence. They’re conceding around 2.9 goals per game compared to Cardiff’s 2.6, and top five sides Fife and Sheffield also have a better defensive record than Manchester, which underlines where the Storm’s problems lie.
Fellow Erhardt Conference side Belfast Giants are the other main challenger to the Devils’ title defence. In fact, the Giants are leading their Conference, though this could change once Cardiff play their games in hand. However, although the Giants have the potential to worry the Devils, their form is falling away at precisely the wrong time. A run of four defeats in February has stalled their title challenge and allowed the Storm to sneak past them. Just as worrying for Giants fans is the state of their defence. Belfast are leaking goals at a rate of 3.4 per game, giving them the worst defensive record in the top seven.
The only other realistic contender for league glory is Fife. Victory over Dundee in the middle of February locked up the Gardiner Conference, and with three games in hand over Cardiff, they could close the gap considerably. Statistically, they are outscoring all three of their rivals at the top of the table, though their defence is slightly poorer than Cardiff’s. They’re also in a rich vein of form at the moment, scoring 20 goals in three games from the middle of February.
The problem for the Flyers is that even if they win all of their games in hand, they will still be three or four wins short of the Devils, so will be relying on Cardiff slipping up repeatedly in the closing weeks. This seems unlikely. Last season’s experience will stand the Devils in good stead as the season reaches its climax. They know what it takes to lift the title and this will give them confidence for the high-pressure games to come.
They also have the best-balanced squad in the Elite League, with an all-round strength reflected in the fact that Joey Martin is the only Devils player to appear in the list of the league’s top ten point-scorers so far this season.
The crucial run of games for the Devils will be their final two of February and their first of March, when Andrew Lord’s side take on the Storm twice and the Giants once. Victory in all three of those games could open up a 12-point gap over their closest rivals and go a long way towards sealing their league title. The Giants have a tough run-in with three games against Cardiff and two against Fife, while the Storm also have to take on the Flyers twice.
In terms of schedules, Fife probably have the better run-in than their three title rivals. With two games against the out-of-form Giants, the Flyers also play their games in-hand against lower-ranked sides, and it would be no surprise to see them pass both Manchester and Belfast in the closing weeks. Whether they have the momentum to catch Cardiff remains to be seen.
It’s all shaping up to be a fascinating conclusion to the Elite League season with three teams chasing the Devils hard. Cardiff have their fate in their own hands, but the Storm, the Giants and the Flyers will provide them with a tough test of their title credentials.