Over? It hasn’t even started yet!

Not over, not over, not over yet….

The headline doesn’t refer to the 2007 classic* performed by Grace, but of course to the Elite League title race.  One glance at it and it confirms that it’s getting awfully tight at the top.

(* arguably)

We are now entering squeaky bum time. Of that there is no doubt. This is where coaches earn their money.  This is where the big players must show up and the smaller players must become bigger players.

A handful of points separate the three teams vying for the top spot.

Cardiff 49 points from 32 games.

Belfast 46 points from 33 games.

Sheffield 44 from 31 games.

Cardiff are quite rightly red hot favorites to win the coveted title.  They have led the league from mid-October and are cemented in the driving seat, for the second times in two years it’s their trophy to lose.

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Cardiff GM Todd Kelman, hoping for more silverware come the end of the season.

 

The whole organisation in Cardiff will have learned from last year, from the cleaner to the Head Coach to the owners.  From the players to the media guys to the hot dog seller.  No one will want to go through that experience again.  Take one game at a time, will surely be the adage in South Wales right now.

Nottingham, surely out of the title race, despite a recent impressive rally and historic continental cup success, are clinging on for dear life to the coat tails of the three clubs above them in the Elite League.  But whilst in all seriousness they are probably out of the race for the Elite League they will surely influence where the Elite League Trophy ends up this season?

Of the 22 games left in the Panthers season, 45% (10) are against the top 3 teams in the league.  Perhaps significantly in the silverware race, they play Cardiff four times, whilst they come up against Sheffield and Belfast three times.

Twice they will take on their bitter Yorkshire rivals at home, whilst they play in Belfast twice in a double header in March which is the beginning of a 5-game run away from the National Ice Centre.  Can Nottingham win the Elite League, surely not, but can they influence where it goes?  You can bet your last pound on that.

Belfast Giants, a fantastic organisation, are right in the mix and currently sit in second place.  With Derrick Walser, not only do they have a capable guy at the helm, but probably the best D man in the league.  They are consistently impressive, and are a fantastic unit away from Belfast.  Walser can take his guys very close, their final two games of the season are in the Welsh capital, a mouth-watering prospect or potentially a huge anti-climax if Paul Thompson and his Sheffield charges have their way.

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Derrick Walser, arguably the best defenceman in the Elite League, but can he steer the Belfast ship to the Elite League title?

Thompson finds himself the odd one out of the three coaches chasing for the League title.  Firstly and significantly perhaps he is the only non-player coach chasing the title, and secondly of course he is the only one to have won it before as a player or a coach.

Knowing how to win a league title in any sport is a ‘leg up’ straight away.

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Are third place Sheffield ready to pounce?

Thompson has been harder than ever on his team.  Tyler Mosienko was allowed to leave Yorkshire without barely a whimper.  Jesse Schultz was then released and not replaced as of yet, with the finger pointed at a lack of secondary scoring being the reason, despite the Canadian going at very nearly a point a game. Thompson was probably making a point to his team.  Forget the fact the Schultz release was after losing to arch enemies Nottingham, the ex-Blaze Coach was making a statement.

By releasing Schultz, he was instantly putting more emphasis on his forwards, more responsibility and more accountability.  It could very well turn out to be an absolute master stroke.

Should the Yorkshire club make it three league wins in three seasons, not many will point to the 30th December when Schultz was released and say, “that was a pivotal point in our season” however Thompson may well do?

As previously mentioned Paul Thompson has one thing over Andrew Lord (Cardiff) and Derrick Walser (Belfast) – he knows how the Elite League is won.

He knows what it takes. He knows what to do and when to do it.  Not only does he know what to say, but he knows when and how to say it.

In his post-game interview after the epic overtime win in Coventry last Sunday, Thompson perhaps deliberately, left it until the end to say his most poignant words:

“We are coming, I like where we are right now, we are a team who are very experienced in being in the position we are, and we are getting better with it.

Words of warning maybe to anyone in listening in South Wales?

One thing is for sure, this League title is far from over.

Take it away Grace.

Not over yet

Author: Rob Plaister

 

Why Matt Marquardt is the man to take the Coventry Blaze to war.

The most complete Elite League performance from a Coventry Blaze player in a long time.

That’s the only way I can describe Matt Marquardt’s contribution on Sunday evening at the Skydome.

It was summed up perfectly by his celebration after his second goal of the evening.  A short fist pump, a yell of exuberance embraced in a face tightened with all the tension and grimace of a man who was trying to get his team mates kicking and screaming to the end.  The jump into the boards and plexi-glass chased by Robinson and Almeida. It was emotional stuff from the big Canadian.

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Marquardt scores his second goal of Sunday evening, Robinson and Almeida join the celebrations

Kicking and Screaming – remember that?  Something I used to say and write about Ryan O’Marra and his pivotal contribution to the Blaze cause down the stretch when we were triumphant in Nottingham at those memorable 2015 play offs.

There are remarkable similarities between both players, and the time spent with the Blaze.  Both on ‘school’ deals, both had relatively slow starts whilst they possibly struggled to get to grips with the quirks and the strains of the Elite League.

The travelling, the officials, the different ice sizes etc. – but with O’Marra, and now with Marquardt, they changed, altered, developed call it whatever you will, but they learned to ‘embraced the suck’ to shamelessly quote a former Blaze coach.

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Ryan O’Marra took Blaze kicking and screaming, now its the turn of Matt Marquardt

I don’t think Matt will have any issue with me saying his first half of the season, wasn’t as he had hoped it would be.  With the team struggling to find any sort of consistency, Marquardt at times cut a lonely figure on the ice.  Lines were changed, team mates came and went, wins were hard to come by.  But then things changed when Danny Stewart and the Coventry owners took a calculated gamble on the classy yet industrious TJ Syner, and his cousin, the likeable sniper that is Barry Almeida.

Stewart fiddled with his lines to try and find the perfect blend with his new guys, Marquardt was given an opportunity with the cousins, meaning captain Pietrus was paired with the impressive Bergman and Robinson – not a bad second offensive line.

Marquardt had finally found his place, a spot and a role he looks so comfortable with, he is now making such a huge contribution to this Blaze team that cried out, no screamed out, for the influence, skill, experience and power that ‘Mags’ brings.

This change instantly struck a chord with all it effected but none more so than Marquardt.  Overnight his game and persona improved, and it continues to rapidly improve.  Now we have the winner.  Now we have that fist pump coupled with the yell.  Now he can take us, kicking and screaming.  Now we have the guy who will do whatever it takes to try to get us the wins we need.  Blaze fans want the “whatever it takes” attitude.  In fact, they crave it.

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No caption required is there?

Now we have a guy going to the net, knowing that there is every chance of an opportunity coming his way.  Now we have the guy ready to battle with the likes of Fitzgerald and Nickerson in front of that net.

I will go as far as to say that the Marquardt we are seeing now, and will hopefully see until the end of this long season, can be as effective as the Chris Bruton we picked up this time last year.  The guy that will stick his neck out, and battle in front of opposing netminders for a sniff of a chance.  Marquardt can be that man for the Coventry Blaze.

The passion that this team perhaps sometimes lacked in the first half of the season is here now, and in abundance.  A great bunch of guys but maybe a little quiet?  Not anymore.   In fact, passion is probably the wrong word.  We maybe lacked a little bit of gumption, doggedness maybe a bit of grit? I am unsure to be honest but whatever it was, all I know is it isn’t missing now.

Marquardt is like the big brother to TJ and Barry.  Diminutive maybe in size, but certainly not in heart, the cousins would probably argue that they don’t need looking after, but look after them he does.  The first sign of a face wash, or a shove and the assistant captain is in the middle of things straight away.  Whilst his recent form, until this weekend hasn’t been particularly rewarded with the points he deserved – and we all know they don’t tell the whole story, he has been like a new signing for the team.  Here is the Chris Bruton we were missing folks.

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Marquardt’s team mate Liam Stewart, going to war for his club and team mate Ross Venus

A winning mentality comes from the top, from the leadership group and it filters down to all the guys below.  How proud were the Blaze faithful of Liam Stewart sticking up for Ross Venus on Sunday evening after the cheap shot from Coyle?  Stewart fought for his team mate, friend and club on Sunday night and in doing so epitomized what it means to play for the Coventry Blaze.

I get the feeling that this bunch of players are now ready to go to war.

Matt Marquardt can be the man to lead us into it.

Author: Rob Plaister

Picture credits and thanks to: Scott Wiggins