In his latest column for British Ice Hockey, Luke James analyses the latest twists and turns in the Elite League title race.
Elite League Title Race: Sheffield, Belfast Split Points in Back-to-back
In the aftermath of a double-header between the Elite League’s title race protagonists, we’re no closer to knowing whether the Belfast Giants or Sheffield Steelers will end the regular-season as champions.
The Giants, playing with home-ice advantage, started the weekend brightly, beating Sheffield 5-1 on Friday evening. Adam Keefe’s team, clinical as ever, raced into an early lead before turning to netminder Tyler Beskorowany to shut the door at the other end.
Defeat in Belfast left Aaron Fox’s Steelers four points adrift of their title rivals on Saturday morning – and he wasn’t happy about it.
“I actually didn’t hate our first period,” Fox explained post-game, “I think we gave up five shots in the first and three ended up in the back of our net.”
“The first [goal’s] a tough one, a tough angled shot that trickled in. The second one, there’s a screened net front, our wingers at the point didn’t get in the shooting lanes, and then we’re down a couple of goals real quick. I think it was two shots, two goals.”
“We haven’t played great hockey lately, at least tonight we played with some character and emotion. I thought we had chances in that game, I felt like we had a way to claw back into that game.”
On Saturday, Sheffield’s fortunes turned. They won 5-2, halving Belfast’s lead at the top.
“That was playoff mentality tonight,” Fox said after his team’s win. “I thought we played a heavy, physical game. All of our guys bought in and we created some of our own luck. I felt like we’ve been missing that the last three or four games.”
He added: “I thought we battled and deserved the two points tonight.”
Belfast Behind in Six-Game Series versus Sheffield
Keefe’s view from the opposing bench wasn’t surprising. Even after his team’s loss on Saturday, the Giants remain in charge of their own destiny. It’s fine, for now.
“I thought it was two great hockey games between the two top teams in the league,” the Canadian said. “At the end of the day, a league title’s not meant to be easy to win, you’ve got to do it the hard way.”
And Belfast might have to win it the hard way. They face Sheffield three more times this year – twice in South Yorkshire. At the halfway mark, here’s how the Giants-Steelers six-game series is shaping up:
- Sheffield Steelers 7-1 Belfast Giants (06/11/21)
- Belfast Giants 5-1 Sheffield Steelers (11/03/22)
- Belfast Giants 2-5 Sheffield Steelers (12/03/22)
- Sheffield Steelers v Belfast Giants (09/04/22)
- Sheffield Steelers v Belfast Giants (10/04/22)
- Belfast Giants v Sheffield Steelers (15/05/22)
It’s incredibly difficult to call.
The Giants have come into their own since the turn of the year, coinciding with Sheffield’s dip. Keefe’s side have a 33-8-2 record on the season with 11 games left to play. Fox’s team, meanwhile, are 31-7-4 with 12 matches to contest.
Will Goaltending Decide the Elite League Title Race?
The regular-season will go down to the wire – and goaltending could be the difference.
Belfast’s tandem of Beskorowany and Jackson Whistle is the Elite League’s strongest. Through 12 appearances, Whistle’s save percentage SV% is a golden .937. Beskorowany’s is a balmy .927 after 33 games.
Rok Stojanovic has played well in Sheffield, matching Beskorowany’s stop rate through 24 appearances. Barry Brust, on the other hand, has struggled – he owns a .893 SV% through 20 injury-hit outings in orange.
Will the Elite League title be won and lost in the crease? Perhaps.
Are the Cardiff Devils in the Title Race?
I don’t think so. As it stands, the Cardiff Devils are seven points off top spot with nine games to play.
Worryingly for Jarrod Skalde, his team have already played most of their games against Sheffield…
- Sheffield 5-4 Cardiff Devils OT (26/09/21)
- Sheffield Steelers 0-5 Cardiff Devils (14/11/21)
- Cardiff Devils 3-5 Sheffield Steelers (04/12/21)
- Cardiff Devils 5-4 Sheffield Steelers OT (18/12/21)
- Sheffield Steelers 2-3 Cardiff Devils OT (20/02/22)
- Cardiff Devils v Sheffield Steelers (26/03/22)
… and Belfast:
- Cardiff Devils 3-2 Belfast Giants (16/10/21)
- Cardiff Devils 4-2 Belfast Giants (27/11/21)
- Belfast Giants 1-0 Cardiff Devils (14/01/22)
- Cardiff Devils 4-1 Belfast Giants (22/01/22)
- Belfast Giants 5-3 Cardiff Devils (04/02/22)
- Belfast Giants 1-2 Cardiff Devils SO (05/02/22)
‘For some, reason we were trying to make those pretty plays’
You’ll notice that Cardiff’s record against the top two is very solid. They’re 3-1-1 against Sheffield and 4-2-0 versus Belfast. The Devils should be in the title fight – but losses against teams lower in the standards have cost them.
“The execution was poor,” Skalde said of Cardiff’s 5-3 loss to the Dundee Stars on Wednesday. “Losing [Brendan] Mikkelson and being down to four defencemen is pretty taxing on our guys. That said, some mistakes that we made ended up in the back of our net.”
“I just felt we didn’t put enough pressure on them, we didn’t shoot enough pucks. I felt like we were trying to pass the puck into the net, as opposed to get traffic to the net and putting some pressure on their goaltender.”
The Canadian added: “For some reason, we were trying to make those pretty plays and it just wasn’t there.”
Clearly, Cardiff aren’t completely out of the race. Brodie Reid leads the league in goals (28). Mac Carruth leads the league in SV% (.938). Skalde’s roster is full of quality, they can beat anyone – including the top two.
But they can also lose to anyone – and have done so too frequently against bubble teams.
Who will come out on top in the Elite League title race? Join the conversation by tweeting @BritIceHockey.