It was a memorable season for one EIHL team in 2012-13, the Nottingham Panthers as they scooped a fantastic treble. Could they repeat those efforts in 2013-14 or would it be a case of one season wonders? Time to read on as we look back on the eleventh season of the EIHL.
The big story in the close season was the dismissal of Ryan Finnerty by the Steelers after two seasons at the helm but with no trophies to show for it. His departure was announced just days after the 2013 Play Off Final, and arriving in Sheffield was former Edinburgh and Belfast coach Doug Christiansen. Finnerty quickly found a new job though, installed as the fifth coach of the Braehead Clan. Elsewhere, there were still concerns over Cardiff due to an uneasy relationship between then owner Paul Ragan and the fans.
The season itself saw another title head its way to Northern Ireland as the Belfast Giants scooped their third EIHL title, and it was a comprehensive one again. The Giants finished an astonishing 22 points ahead of second placed Sheffield, and only suffered six regulation losses all season. Christiansen’s tenure in the Steel City failed to last the season as he was dismissed by Tony Smith in mid-February with the Steelers fans desperately unhappy with the brand of hockey he was dishing up. It was hardly “entertainment”, in fact it was duller than ditch water.
Christiansen’s temporary replacement was former NHL winger Steven Goertzen whom he had given the captaincy to instead of long serving incumbent Jonathan Phillips. Goertzen, who was in his second year of an university deal, steadied the ship for a couple of weeks before the Steelers announced the then worst kept secret in the EIHL. They appointed former player and then most recently Cardiff Head Coach Gerad Adams as Christiansen’s permanent successor. Adams himself had been removed early in the season by Cardiff due to off-ice issues created by Ragan and then Director of Hockey Operations Brent Pope, commonly referred to by some on less than favourable terms. That ended an eight year stay in the Principality for the Regina native but he was welcomed back to Sheffield with open arms.
Adams couldn’t stop the Giants running away with the title, but he was putting the pride back into the Steelers and they were starting to play better. Dundee enjoyed their best season since coming into the EIHL, with a third placed overall finish and ahead of the disappointing Coventry and Nottingham. It also saw them scoop the Gardiner Conference title, predictably Belfast had taken the Erhardt one. Cardiff suffered a complete season to forget, finishing 9th out of 10 and thus not making the Play-Offs for the first time ever. It was, some said, just desserts for the Ragan-Pope combo that harshly treated Adams.
They did fare better in the Challenge Cup, making the final four. But that was about as good as it was going to get as they were paired with the relentless Belfast Giants. The Giants secured their place in the Final with a 7-1 win in the first leg, and although Devils gained some respect with a draw in the second leg, it finished 10-4 on aggregate. Their opponents in that Final would be the Challenge Cup experts, the Panthers. They saw off their old rivals, the Steelers, with a 11-7 aggregate margin.
Giants looked good for another trophy when they took the opening leg 5-2 but were felled in the return one as the Panthers roared back to take the one in the NIC 4-1 on the night with an irrepressible performance. Overtime couldn’t separate the sides so it went to a penalty shootout. Cometh the time, cometh Craig Kowalski. The netminder saved all three Giants efforts, including the deciding one from Craig Peacock, whilst Panthers Czech star Petr Kalus netted in the second round to scoop a fifth consecutive Challenge Cup win.
In the Play-Offs, the biggest shock in the quarter finals involved the Panthers. The Panthers were humiliated it has to be said, 9-1 over two legs by Finnerty’s Clan including a 5-0 shutout in the second leg. The seedings meant a reunion for Finnerty with the Steelers who ensured they wouldn’t be defeated in the last eight by Coventry as they skated to a 9-3 aggregate win. Fife made their first final four appearance when they surprised Dundee; however Belfast had enough to see off the Hull Stingrays.
Semi-Final one saw the Giants edge past Fife 1-0 whilst the Steelers and Clan traded off in a titanic battle with GB internationalist Robert Dowd scoring the game winner. The final itself was equally tense; twice the Giants led through Cody Brookwell and Colin Shields (who always seems to enjoy scoring against his old club) but Steelers replied through Phil Hill and Dowd. Former New Jersey Devil Frank Doyle kept the Steelers in it with a great save after Drew Fata was caught in possession but we went to overtime. 1:43 into it and it was glory for the Steelers, superb play down the left by Goertzen and talk about redemption: Fata sent a high wrist shot over Stephen Murphy to give the South Yorkshire side the glory.
In the Continental Cup, the Panthers sailed through their qualifying group with a 100 per cent record. This took them to Asiago in Italy for the next round but this was where the story ended for Corey Neilson’s team. They lost 2 games by the odd goal but won the other against Kazakhstanis’ Yertis Pavlodar; the group was won by the hosts with three wins out of three. As for the actual tournament, it was won by Norwegians Stavanger Oilers in the most dramatic of circumstances. Rouen Dragons defeated HC Donbass in a shootout to give the Oilers the Cup by a single point when Donbass looked favourites to capture it for a second successive year going into the final day.
So that was season number 11, what would happen in 2014-15? Tune in shortly to find out.