The final four again, somehow!

Wow.  We made it again.  We made it to the final 4. Somehow!

If I had written that back in the dark days of November, you may have thought it more fitting for me to be carted off to the funny farm, as opposed to writing this.

Disaster of a start

I think back to a particular bad time of the season, as I say above, early November – we had had a disaster of a week early in that month, where we were ‘pummelled’ in Glasgow, Braehead shutting us out to the tune of 6, and then we went to Nottingham and ‘endured’ another shutout, this time losing 4-0, with big Paul Swindlehurst (who subsequently moved to Manchester Storm) scoring two of the Panthers goals.  Swindlehurst managed just one more goal in 48 games for Nottingham before being loaned to the Altrincham based club.

The Braehead game hurt me particularly.  It was the week after I formally took the Media role on for the club, and I drove home on my own from Glasgow that night shaking my head questioning my sanity?  The Nottingham game that came next, was probably the lowest we have been and the worst we have ever performed from memory under Head Coach Chuck Weber’s reign.

Changes

The side that night contained a very limited Igor Bobcek (I picked his sticks up from Manchester on the way to Braehead!) who was basically doing us a favour and helping with some injury cover, Trimm and Lukacevic (who are both now long departed) and the unfortunate Steven Chalmers who left the club following injury.

Compare that side to that one that hammered Manchester in the last game of the season.  To do that, we need to add the names Brenden Walker, Boris Valabik, Kevin Noble, David Clements and Chris Bruton.  So to summarise…

Out: Bobcek, Trimm, Lukacevic, Chalmers

In: Walker, Valabik, Noble, Bruton, Clements.

Valabik, despite his detractors is very good D man, Walker can, and has spun a game on its head, and is capable of some sublime skill (example: That pass for Fishers ‘GWG’ in Sheffield) Noble is our heart beat and has improved all season, anyone that blocks that many shots are fine by me. Clements has had a great first season with us since coming over from Milton Keynes, and it’s a shock to me and others, that he isn’t involved in the GB set up, and to finish the list Chris Bruton is up there with the best players in the league.  No doubt about that.

Anger

It’s been a turnaround of huge proportions that’s for sure.   The Nottingham defeat was the most animated I have seen Chuck post game.  Animated is maybe the wrong word, he doesn’t get animated.  He ticks.  I don’t mean, as in a nervous twitch, I mean as in, like a bomb ticks.  It’s never easy going in for the post match interview when we have lost and that night in Nottingham, well that was the toughest one of the season.  There was pure emotion there, obvious frustration. Anger, yes Anger is the word. Chuck is always the model professional and has never ever turned an interview down, despite being on the wrong end of some serious drubbings this season.

Weber called the team out that night questioning the work ethic and he was right to do so “I can’t change work ethic, you can’t change that, if you don’t work, no system is successful” followed by “I like these guys, but just not as hockey players right now” The latter being the sentence that caught people’s attention at the time

Listening back, Chuck doesn’t actually sound that angry, but that’s just not his style.  I remember listening to Paul Thompson in Cardiff, angrily labelling his team a bunch of “homers”.  As much as Weber probably wanted to castigate his team in public, he didn’t go that far, but he got his point over.  He said the right things, and made his points very clear.  There was plenty of emotion there that night in Nottingham, that’s for sure.  Despite him keeping his cool on Audio.

Chris Lawrence

And so we moved on.  And we moved players on.  Chris Lawrence was a huge disappointment.  Weber told me one day “I watched him in Cardiff (for Panthers) the season before and he terrorised them, at one point 3 of them were chasing after him”. Lawrence was the big signing of the summer, the one we felt would carry us and win us games and for whatever reason, it just didn’t materialise.  1 point (an assist) in his 9 games was as bizarre as it was surprising and disappointing.  Could or did anyone argue with the signing at the time?  No chance.

Perhaps the 14/15 (63 points in 61 games) for Nottingham was an outstanding season for him, something of a fluke maybe?  Can you have fluke seasons?  Did Chris over perform all season in Nottingham, or did we just not suit him?  Was there something that Lawrence just didn’t get?  Lots of questions, but not many answers. Lawrence is a good guy off the ice, perhaps it was just a bad fit, a round peg in a square hole? Maybe.

Ned Lukacevic

Lukacevic, was a different story I feel.  An obviously talented guy, good hands, over 100 games in the AHL, but a certain languid style resulted in just 4 goals in 21 games, and a contract in Edinburgh was the end result for the fruits of his labour. If we had seen the Lukacevic that we saw that infamous evening in Tychy, I am certain he would be still be playing in a Blaze shirt.

 

Ned Lukacevic, had the best game of a short Blaze career in Tychy, Poland.

Ned

He was a different guy in Poland that night. He played a different way, if it moved, it was getting hit. Unfortunately, he couldn’t replicate this style or form in the Elite League for us.  Again, a good guy but good guys don’t always win you games of hockey.  Should Ned get a contract somewhere else in the Elite League next season (and it won’t be with Edinburgh), it will be his fourth different Elite league club in succession.  The options may be running out.

The Masterstroke

The signing of Jordan Pietrus turned out to be a masterstroke.  A little bit lost in Poland after a successful season there, we not only signed a Hockey player, we signed a good man.  That may sound strange but good people are key to a vibrant, successful dressing room.  The types that are ready to challenge themselves and each other.  The ones that are ready to go to war for each other. Eloquent, modest and intelligent, Pietrus is everything a mother wants her daughter to meet.  But then there is the other side to him.  The side that doesn’t get pushed around by the enormity of the likes of Zach Fitzgerald or Leigh Salters.  Pietrus is the biggest 5’8 guy I have ever known.

Jordan Pietrus “a masterstroke of a signing”

JP2

The reward of a two-year contract is absolutely just and well deserved.  You get out of life what you put into it. To again quote Coach Weber “What we do today, effects our tomorrow’s” That sums up Pietrus efforts in a nutshell.  Credit to James Pease for cementing Jordan on a two year extension.  It’s the best news we could have wished for.

Director of Hockey James Pease was a busy man during the season signing Igor Bobcek, David Clements,  James Isaacs, Jordan Pietrus, Brenden Walker and Chris Bruton.

Pease

Robbomania begins

Brett Robinson finally hit his straps towards the end of 2015, points then came thick and fast.  Always known as a late starter, it was a case of be patient and it will come, we were patient and so it did.

I did an interview with Brett around this time (December), and he explained to me in great detail, the difference between the ECHL and the Elite League. The traveling and how it takes its toll, how its totally alien for a player to sit on a coach for 6 or 7 hours to Dundee, jump off, play a game, then back on the coach for 6 or 7 hours, home, sleep, then play again.  In the ECHL anything over 2 hours, they fly, and fly the day before the game usually.

Now, some people reading may think “pah, they get paid to play what’s wrong with them” But the difference is a big one. It’s something you have to train your body to cope with.  There is no set solution either, every player is different.  Eat, sleep, talk, listen to music, all different ways to kill 7 hours, but it can take many trips to work out, which works routine works best for you. Brendan Walker is another who has admitted to struggled with the traveling.

Happy New Year

Highlight of the season, pre play offs, was probably Nottingham away on New Year’s Eve.  Ironic, given my comments earlier about Nottingham being one of the lowest points earlier in the season.  We got a bit of luck that day, Dan Green stood in for Mika Wiikman, and we blitzed the Panthers in the first period.  Pietrus. Fisher, Robinson and the under rated Carl Lauzon all scored in the first period to send us in to the first break 4-0 up.  Robinson was 1+3 that day and was outstanding.  All of a sudden the Blaze were electric, on fire if you pardon the obvious pun.  

Nottingham gave our Man of the Match that day to a guy who didn’t get a point in the game. A shame as Robinson was worthy of a bigger pat on the back for his endeavours’ that day.  Still, its a ‘team game’ and that’s the first thing Brett would tell you.
The upturn in fortunes in our season, from this point on, is well documented, at one stage we were a bottom place team earlier in the season.  Things were never that bad last season, but there are definite similarities, and all of a sudden like last season, we clicked.  

Despite some setbacks since we have carried on clicking.  No team in the world wins every game. Eighth place was a disappointing finish, yes I 100% agree, however to get past Sheffield in the Quarter Finals show that we are far better team, than the final league table suggests.  

It was a monumental effort to get past Paul Thompson’s men.  This was no fluke either.  The ex Blaze Coach said we were the better team over the two legs, and we were.

Fair comparisons?

Last season we were possibly spoilt with some of the quality we had. O’Marra, Goertzen and Egener together with Brian Stewart maybe carried us at times – individually and collectively, but now I find myself looking at this team, and being able to compare certain players and their roles with those that won the play offs last season.

Ryan O’Marra / Jordan Pietrus

Steven Goertzen / Chris Bruton

Derek Lee / Drew Fisher

Steve Chalmers / David Clements

Justin Da Costa / Mike Quesnele

Goals

The one thing we didn’t have last season, that we do have this season, is goals.  Or at least we have found the net with more ease this season. Believe it or not we have scored 33% more goals this season than last season.  Which is why there is no comparison on offer for the free scoring Brett Robinson, and the highly skilled, hard-working Carl Lauzon, we didn’t have them or players like it last season in my opinion.  I mention 33%, the actual difference in goals scored is 43, which, yes you have guessed is the total number of goals these two (Robinson and Lauzon) combined have scored for Blaze this season.

Carl Lauzon, hardworking and free scoring

Lauzon

Jorgensen

Perhaps defensively we are not as good as last season’s Champions.  Jim Jorgensen for me is right up there with the best D men in the league.  His improvement throughout the season has been significant, and another reason why we have turned the season around.  He seems to have grown in confidence and relished the responsibility thrust upon him.

Valabik

Another key component of the Blaze D core is the big man.  Big Boris Valabik.  Boris pushes doesn’t he?  And pushes very close to the line. Seemingly officials are more than happy to give themselves one less headache, and to remove him from the game at any opportunity.  There have been plenty of misconducts. Some harsh, some not so harsh, but either way, Boris is a far better player for us than on the ice, than he is in the shower, and we need him to be on his best behaviour this weekend.  He has to play with an edge, I get that, and I am sure he has the experience to know just what to do (and what not to do – or say!) this weekend.

Bruton?  Yes please!

Perhaps the biggest surprise in the league came on the 4th February the day of the Bruton / Trimm trade.  The deal was done pretty quickly despite the odd snag here and there.  It was the perfect opportunity for us, losing a player who had possibly under achieved, and gaining, as I said earlier, one of the best players in the league.  

Bruton is everything I want in a hockey player, similar in style to Pietrus, Bruton is possibly a more polished player, that sounds harsh on Pietrus who never fails to give everything. Perhaps more experienced would be a better explanation, but I know ‘Pietey’ won’t mind my comment.  I won’t touch on the saga that unravelled around the trade, only to say Bruton handled himself with far more dignity that the now retired Chris Holt.

I hope Bruton is re-signed next season, and fingers crossed.

Brian Stewart

Brian Stewart had a tough first few months, perhaps it was the expectation of the previous season, perhaps it was a new team and particularly a new D core around him, perhaps it was just a genuine loss of form, but oh my, has the big guy bounced back.  It’s no coincidence that we have also bounced with the big man.

Brian Stewart, “Seemingly unbeatable when on form”

Stewie

When he is on form, we are close to being seemingly unbeatable.  This was always my theory as to why we would qualify after taking a 2 goal lead to Sheffield with us.  With Pinc in goal I fancied us to score at least 3, which meant Sheffield had to score at least 5 to tie the game and 6 to win it.  ‘Touch wood’, but when Brian Stewart is in this form, he doesn’t concede 6 too often and so it proved in “The house of steel” as my esteemed college Ed Kimberly refers to Sheffield!

This weekend, history repeating itself?

So, to this weekend, believe it or not the bookies make us joint favorites with our friends in Nottingham.  Its wide open isn’t it?  Any one of the four could win it.  Blaze have hit form, Cardiff are so strong and deep, similar to Nottingham. Defensively Nottingham are so good, and tough to score against, and Fife, well Danny Stewart and Todd Dutiaume have had a fantastic season, their highest league position for years, and I am sure they are proud of what they have achieved – they should be.

A Blaze v Fife final would be nice; I can think of a certain Canadian veteran up there in Fife that would really fancy that.  Will he get his chance, it remains to be seen, after this season, I would not discount anything?

Will we see Chuck Weber have the last laugh, I certainly wouldn’t bet against it?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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