It’s official, the Elite League’s title race is a two-horse chase between the Sheffield Steelers and Belfast Giants. Jarrod Skalde’s Cardiff Devils are officially out of contention – and will now shift their focus to preparing for the playoffs.
It was also a big week in the bottom half of the Elite League standings, where the battle for fifth is heating up. Heading into the final month of the season, four teams are separated by two points in the fight to avoid having to play Belfast, Sheffield, or Cardiff in round one of the postseason.
It’s getting spicy in the Elite League – here are my takeaways from the final week of March.
Elite League’s Title Race Will Go Down to the Wire
Aaron Fox’s Steelers ended Cardiff’s title hopes on Saturday [26 March], winning by a whopping 6-2 scoreline on their travels. It was the Devils’ only game of the weekend, meaning they enter April with a 31-15-2 record on the season.
— Premier Sports Elite League | #EIHL (@officialEIHL) March 26, 2022
Despite their solid record in 2021-22, Cardiff’s performance against Sheffield was flat. Skalde’s men lacked a cutting edge in the offensive zone and went goalless on the powerplay through five attempts.
What’s more, the result saw the Devils’ 15-game winning run at Viola Arena ended in brutal fashion. Painfully second-best against a title rival, they will go back to the drawing the board and turn their attention to the playoffs.
In the shadow of their painful Challenge Cup final loss, Cardiff’s latest defeat will sting. But they mustn’t be taken lightly in the postseason.
In Sheffield, the mood is bright. The Steelers followed up their win over Cardiff with a hard-fought victory versus the Manchester Storm.
Courtesy of goals from Robert Dowd and Brandon Whistle, Sheffield scraped through with a 2-1 win – and it was a tight as the scoreline suggests. The Steelers narrowly outshot Manchester (26-20) and conceded a pair of extra penalties (3-1). Once again, Fox’s penalty killers played a decisive role.
Meanwhile in Belfast, cracks are starting to show. Adam Keefe’s side lost 4-2 to the Nottingham Panthers on Friday [25 March], opening the door to Sheffield in the Elite League’s title race. They bounced back the following day, winning 4-1 over the Panthers, leaving the tussle at the top looking like this:
And then there were two. The @officialEIHL title race comes down to the @BelfastGiants and @steelershockey and there are two big road games for both to navigate in midweek this week #EIHL pic.twitter.com/zv3VzLCHT1
— Adam McKendry (@admckendry) March 28, 2022
Belfast and Sheffield are separated by two points at the summit, although the Steelers have one game in hand heading down the stretch. Although there are plenty of banana skins for both teams to navigate along the way, their three-game series will likely determine the outcome of the Elite League’s title race.
It’s going down to the wire.
The Battle for Fifth Heats Up
As the season finale comes into view, this is how the table looks:
Happy Monday! | #EIHL
38 games to go before this is completed 👇 pic.twitter.com/4BBX1EqZiS
— Premier Sports Elite League | #EIHL (@officialEIHL) March 28, 2022
Belfast and Sheffield will scrap it out for top spot, while the Devils and Panthers are close to wrapping up P3 and P4, respectively. Beneath them, it’s far too close to call – so let’s start at the bottom and work our way up.
Unless they embark on a remarkable winning run, the Fife Flyers will soon be eliminated from playoff contention. They’re unlikely to bridge their nine-point gap to the playoff line, even with a favourable run-in, and losing 4-1 to Manchester at the weekend only makes their hill steeper.
Ryan Finnerty’s Storm, by contrast, are in a relatively strong position but have a tough spell of games on the horizon. Manchester will face Sheffield three more times before the end of the season, the hardest schedule in the league.
Glasgow Clan Lead Chase to Become Best of the Rest
Between fifth and eighth, all bets are off.
The Glasgow Clan, Dundee Stars, Guildford Flames, and Coventry Blaze are streaky clubs, each capable of winning (or losing) five in a row. As a result, consistency will be key over the next month. The team that finds a way to win scrappily will enter the postseason as fifth seeds. It’s that simple.
For one night only, Omar Pacha’s Stars were above the .500 mark – a remarkable achievement for a team that lost nine in 10 to start the season. However, they came crashing back down to earth on Sunday [27 March] with a crushing 7-2 loss to Coventry at the Skydome Arena.
A quick scan of the Blaze’s recent results is telling. Danny Stewart’s team lost six in a row after their 8-1 win over Glasgow at the start of the month. They’ve won twice on the bounce since snapping their losing run.
Guildford’s final stretch of fixtures will be difficult to navigate. They play Cardiff (x2), Belfast, Coventry, Nottingham, and Manchester (x2) to end the season – a true mixed bag. The Flames are very much still in the battle for fifth.
However, the Clan are clear of the rest of the pack in the race for fifth, at least for now. The next week will be key for Glasgow, they face Belfast twice.