With the Elite League’s 54-game regular-season out of the way, it’s time to get down to business in the playoffs. We know the seedings. We have the schedule. We’re ready to watch the action unfold. Plus, we have a clear idea of the players to watch in the EIHL as the postseason begins.
It’s been far too long since we’ve had playoff hockey to enjoy in the UK’s top-flight. And while we’d all prefer to have the pandemic years back, one of the reasons I’m so intrigued heading into the postseason is that we’ve got rookies playing like all-stars and veterans recapturing their glory days. It’s wild out there.
In other words, we’re in for a treat this postseason – albeit with a dark cloud or two floating above the Motorpoint Arena.
Players to Watch in the EIHL Playoffs:
Here’s a look at eight players worth following when the playoffs start on Saturday:
(1) Belfast Giants v Coventry Blaze (8)
Game One – 23/04/22 at 19:00 in Coventry
Game Two – 24/04/22 at 16:00 in Belfast
Will J.J. Piccinich Continue His Dream Season in the Playoffs?
J.J. Piccinich can’t complain about his first year in the Elite League. He finished the regular-season leading the competition in points (80), goals (35), and tied with Scott Conway and Justin Crandall for the assists title (45).
The 25-year-old, a former fourth-round pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs, is a fan-favourite at SSE Arena – and it’s easy to see why. He signed, scored lots of goals, and helped the Belfast Giants secure a league and cup double. Not bad, eh?
Piccinich says the right things too.
“I’m super excited,” the American told The Belfast Telegraph following his pre-season switch. “I know we’re going to have a really good team this year and I’m really looking forward to getting over and seeing all the fans.”
He added: “Having talks with [Adam Keefe] and just knowing how professional an organisation it is lured me in. I was able to gauge where the team would be this year and they have high hopes and being able to win is definitely something I look for when I join a team. Our talks evolved into it becoming a no-brainer.”
Well, the Giants have already won something. But will they complete the Elite League’s grand slam?
Belfast’s path to the final four runs through Coventry, where Piccinich will be hoping to find twine once again. He’s an had an excellent season and is certainly one of the players to watch in the EIHL.
After 21 Years as a Pro, Janne Laakkonen Still Has Plenty Left in the Tank
Danny Stewart always speaks highly of veteran playmaker Janne Laakkonen.
“I’m really, really excited to bring Janne back,” the Canadian said before the Elite Series. “He’s a special player and has a quality that not a lot of players have. He makes our powerplay better and whoever he plays with better.”
The smooth-skating Finn, in his 21st season as a professional, has always looked formidable in Blaze blue. He registered 52 points (13 goals, 39 assists) in 51 regular-season appearances, silencing his last-remaining doubters.
Considering Laakkonen’s playstyle isn’t dependent on foot-speed, his age isn’t a concern heading into the postseason. The 40-year-old has a high hockey IQ and is always dangerous when the puck is on his stick.
If Stewart’s blueliners can keep the Giants at bay, the Blaze will only be a couple of Laakkonen dishes to Luke Ferrara away from the final four. That’s a big if – but one worth bearing in mind this weekend.
(2) Sheffield Steelers v Dundee Stars (7)
Game One – 23/04/22 at 19:00 in Sheffield
Game Two – 24/04/22 at 17:00 in Dundee
Time to Shine, Marc-Olivier Vallerand
There’s something very Sheffield Steelers about the way Marc-Olivier Vallerand plies his trade.
The 33-year-old has scored at an impressive rate for every team he’s suited up for. In his final season of junior hockey, he put up 75 points (34 goals, 41 assists) in 68 games as captain of the Quebec Remparts. He registered 53 points (28 goals, 25 assists) in 70 appearances for the ECHL’s Greenville Road Warriors as a rookie professional the following year. It’s a theme.
Vallerand is 5-foot-11 but doesn’t play like it. There’s a bite to his play, the kind synonymous with a quintessentially Canadian vision of the sport. Rough. Tumble. Skill. Goals. He’s a rounded package.
As expected, Vallerand has continued his scoring form under Aaron Fox. He accumulated 59 points (26 goals, 33 assists) in 45 league appearances this term, making him the leading figure in all categories for Sheffield.
After missing out on the Challenge Cup and regular-season title, Vallerand will be hungry for success in the playoffs. Keep an eye on him.
Charlie Combs Gamble Paid off for Omar Pacha
Let’s be clear: Omar Pacha discovered a gem in Charlie Combs. Although the 25-year-old arrived in Dundee to minimal fanfare, he quickly established himself as a star in Stars-land. And they both deserve stick taps for it.
It wouldn’t be accurate to describe Combs’ pre-Elite League career as prolific. He enjoyed a couple of point-per-game seasons as a junior but didn’t exactly set the world on fire while in the NCAA. The St. Louis-born forward notched six goals and four assists in his most prolific collegiate campaign before registering five points with the ECHL’s Wichita Thunder.
In other words, Pacha signed Combs because he believed the 5-foot-6 winger had untapped potential. He was right.
In his first full season as a professional, Combs amassed 65 points (30 goals, 35 assists) in 52 appearances. That’s despite failing to find the net through his first four appearances in Dundee blue.
“It felt really good to see those hit the net,” Combs explained after lighting the lamp in the Elite League for the first time back in October. “Those were two big points that we needed from Belfast, so just helping the team to win was a great feeling. Hopefully, we can keep that confidence going into next weekend and throughout the rest of the season.”
Combs finished the season ranked fifth in goals, eleventh in assists, and third in points. Don’t underestimate him in the playoffs.
(3) Cardiff Devils v Glasgow Clan (6)
Game One – 23/04/22 at 19:30 in Cardiff
Game Two – 24/04/22 at 18:00 in Glasgow
Is This Sam Duggan’s Time to Shine?
Sam Duggan’s path to the Elite League was unconventional. He left Bracknell’s development system while still a teenager to chase his hockey dream in Sweden. After four successful years with Orebro HK, he signed for Cardiff in 2018-19 and made minimal impact.
In his first couple of the Elite League seasons, Duggan registered 13 points (six goals, seven assists) in 96 outings. He has 15 points (six goals, nine assists) in 50 games this year and earned a call-up to the national team.
While 23-year-old Duggan isn’t Cardiff’s brightest star, he’s certainly one of the players to watch in the EIHL with the World Championship in mind.
Brodie Reid is also worth a mention. The former Kansas City Maverick put up 59 points (31 goals, 28 assists) in 52 appearances for the Devils this term, making him a force to be reckoned with in the playoffs.
Points Galore with Colton Yellow Horn
Colton Yellow Horn’s first season in the Elite League doesn’t stand out compared to the rest of his CV. That’s right: notching 55 points (11 goals, 44 assists) in 54 appearances for Glasgow isn’t particularly spectacular by the Canadian’s standards. He’s registered 215 points over his last 195 games in Austria, Slovakia, Romania, and the UK.
Clearly, the 5-foot-9 forward is one of the players to watch in the EIHL this postseason.
Even so, Yellow Horn started the season slowly and admitted his initial lack of lamp lighting bothered him.
“I was maybe gripping the stick a little tighter as well, but it was nice to finally get those,” he said after scoring versus Dundee in December. “As a goalscorer, it can get in your hand if you go through a run like that so you try to focus more on helping the team elsewhere.
“Hopefully now that monkey’s off the back, I can keep scoring and helping the team get more wins on the board. I put a lot of pressure on myself when I play and I have a certain standard that I aim for in each and every game so when you’re not scoring, it can be tough on the mind.
“But I’ve been around long enough to know if you’re not scoring and getting the chances, it’ll open up for you eventually.”
If the Clan are to pull off a first-round upset, Yellow Horn will have a key role to play.
(4) Nottingham Panthers v Guildford Flames (5)
Game One – 23/04/22 at 18:00 in Guildford
Game One – 24/04/22 at 16:00 in Nottingham
James Downie Believes, Do You?
Although we’re still waiting for an update from Panthers HQ about their situation in the crease, James Downie’s story is interesting regardless. The Blackburn-born, Aussie-raised netminder spent the season as the Manchester Storm’s back-up, before making a dramatic loan switch to Nottingham earlier this month.
Downie’s southern migration was the result of an injury crisis in Panthers-nation. Kevin Carr, the team’s undisputed starter, went down hurt in training, leaving Mark Matheson a goalie short just weeks from the playoffs.
After throwing Will Kerlin in at the deep end, Nottingham GM Gui Doucet arranged a short-term loan for Downie. Heading into the postseason, the former Australia youth international has control of the blue paint.
I interviewed Downie last month and was struck by his ambition. He believes in himself, telling me he has hopes of playing as a starter in Scandinavia later in his career. HockeyAllsvenskan, Sweden’s second division, is on his radar as a landing spot in the future. For a netminder partly developed in the Australian Ice Hockey League, that’d be quite the feat.
Related: James Downie, Manchester Storm Q&A
The 21-year-old isn’t naïve to the challenges ahead either. His answer to a question about what he’d learnt from Manchester’s other netminders this season was insightful:
Of course, it is a development year – right?
We had [Matt] Ginn at the start of the year. Unfortunately, he’s not on the ice anymore because of his injury, but I was learning quite a lot from him. He has a style that I wanted to learn.
[Jason] ‘Bash’, for example, has a different style of play to me – it’s very much old school – so I learn more about the mental side of the game, how to deal with certain situations, from him.
We were playing Sheffield and weren’t having the best game, and he came over to me to let me know [about] the mental side of it. That honestly goes a long way, I think it’s one of the most important things about hockey as a goaltender.
Ginner works with me after practices, these guys have played high-level pro… it’s good to pick their brains.
While Downie’s .851 save percentage doesn’t exactly jump off the page, he won’t be fazed by playoff hockey (if he’s called upon). He’s an optimist. If the Panthers receive high-quality netminding, they have a real shot at making the final four on home ice. All eyes on the crease, then.
Pressure’s on Team GB’s Robert Lachowicz
Robert Lachowicz is under pressure to succeed in the playoffs after finishing the regular-season with seventeen points (six goals, 11 assists) in 54 appearances. He hasn’t made the impact many expected of him during his first season with Guildford Flames – but could that change in the postseason?
The 32-year-old has seen everything there’s to see in British ice hockey. He’s represented Team GB with flying colours and was a key player for the Panthers for over a decade. But his critics argue he’s lost a step in the offensive zone and question his place in the national team.
As a result, Lachowicz is one of the players to watch in the EIHL heading into the playoffs. Will he be able to use his veteran experience to guide the Flames into the final four at the Panthers’ expense? It would be quite the storyline if he did.
Who are your top players to watch in the EIHL? Join the conversation by tweeting your picks to @BritIceHockey.