The Cardiff Devils are back at the top of the EIHL table, just one point clear of the Belfast Giants after a 6 – 2 victory over the Coventry Blaze in their final game in hand over the Giants.
It’s a privileged position to be in to say it’s not a good season when the Devils have been in, or around the hunt for the league title, and right now the Devils are in pole position. Like I wrote in an earlier piece, the Devils have improved their team this year but the league as a whole has improved too so the Devils aren’t in a position where they can run the show again.
To start the year, the Devils were looking like that team, the one that could run away with things if they wanted to. They had a run of huge wins, 9 – 1 against Milton Keynes, 7 -1 against Sheffield and 7 – 2 against Fife on the same weekend, all of that following an impressive start to their CHL campaign that saw them push some of Europe’s finest teams all the way.
While the Devils didn’t recreate the success of last year’s CHL season, they actually played better than the year before in a tournament that saw exactly what the EIHL is capable of with the Devils and especially the Nottingham Panthers last year, so won’t take any British teams lightly anymore.
What the Devils have done over the years since Andrew Lord took charge is keep the same core group together. Joey Martin, Joey Haddad, Jake Morissette, Ben Bowns and company have all stayed around the club and kept that familiarity to allow them to have a good start to the year with little need for any adjustment period for new players. This year they have six new faces on their roster, with three coming in midway through the season who all took a moment to get adjusted to their new surroundings, but are all more than comfortable in a Devils jersey now.
The biggest reason the same group keep coming back for the Devils is they don’t actually need to overhaul the roster every summer, just tweak it. Guys will retire and move on, some will move on for a variety of reasons, while Cardiff seems to be an ideal destination that players say they went to stay put, and once again most of them have.
Confidence has looked to be the biggest issue facing the Devils over recent weeks, some guys haven’t been shooting the puck as often as before, or maybe looking to go for the easy pass or wait for that option to become available rather than take a chance to thread the needle like they had before when they had more belief in their ability earlier in the year. But now that confidence looks to be back. Over the past few games the Devils have increased their shot amounts, with a dominant performance just a few games back against the Milton Keynes Lightning where Patrick Killeen was forced to make 49 saves on the night, while they consistently have outshot their opponents and still lead the league in goals for with 122, while their power play numbers are a league best with 25% efficiency on the man advantage.
Last night against the Coventry Blaze, the Devils played the most complete team game they have done so for a while. Yes the game was flat after the 5 – 1 score line after the first period, but they did something they were struggling to do just a matter of weeks ago, they closed the game out.
With similar line combinations in the forward ranks that have more or less stayed the same for a while with less chopping and changing around, they used that team chemistry to devastating effect in the first period.
With Joey Martin down the middle on the top line with Matt Pope and Sean Bentivoglio on his wing, they have an experienced group with a lot of juice left in their legs. Martin is definitely in the conversation for the best Devil of all time (it’s a short conversation as well if you’re having it with Neil Francis), while Pope and Bentivoglio have shown when they’re on their game they are difference makers, with all looking match their season point totals from last year, and all three being on pace to do so.
The second line with all new guys, Stephen Dixon with Mike Hedden and Charles Linglet on the same line with him, they may be the second in the line rotation, but probably log as many, if not more minutes than the top line. The trio of newbies would easily be the top line for most EIHL teams, and with the tenacity Dixon plays with using his brute strength and willingness to get himself into the dirty areas frees up the chances for Hedden and Linglet to use their speed and skill to burn past opponents and opens up so many options in terms of a clear shooting lane, a look for a redirection or just shooting for a rebound for Dixon to knock in from in tight, where he and Layne Ulmer operate best.
Speaking of Ulmer, he’s playing the best hockey of his life during his time in Cardiff at the tender age of 38, and with Jake Morissette and Joey Haddad on his wing, they’ve turned into an incredible trio for Andrew Lord to utilise to allow the top two lines to get some rest. I could speak at length about the skating ability of Joey Haddad, the defensive work of Jake Morissette and the net-front ability of Layne Ulmer, but just watching this combination go to work, it showed promise when they were first put together, and now it’s living up to it.
Haddad has been one of the Devils best performers while they’ve returned to their early season form, increasing his point totals to 27 in 30 games with 11 goals and 16 assists. In a stretch dating back to December 14th, Haddad has posted a point in seven straight games, picking up 6 goals and four assists over that stretch to become a real leader on the team with his offensive performances as of late.
Morissette has also really improved his offensive performances as of late. While he’s been under scrutiny from some fans for the lack of offensive numbers, he’s been a crucial part of the Devils penalty kill with his active stick and smart position to take away shooting and passing lanes, as well as sacrificing his body to block shots, but lately he’s chipped in a lot more offensively and you can see in his body language on the ice, he’s playing with a lot more confidence and putting in real captain calibre performances, taking him up to 9 points in 30 games, with four of those points (1 goal and three assists) in his last four outings.
Finally, with Matthew Myers and Sam Duggan being mainstays on the fourth line, and Evan Mosey joining them for last night’s meeting with the Coventry Blaze, it’s made one of the best fourth unit’s in the league, with a reliable veteran presence and one of the best penalty killers in the league, and an up and coming Brit in Duggan who’s learning from an ideal line-mate in Myers as he looks to improve on a good start to his professional career.
Depth is one of the biggest assets Andrew Lord has had during his time in charge, versatility is the biggest. The fact that he’s able to put guys into new situations with success speaks to the character of the team. Evan Mosey is a prime example of them.
While you can commend the attitude of Josh Batch for being willing to move between forward and defence whenever asked, it’s Evan Mosey who’s showing a huge dedication to them team by not just being willing to play one game as a forward and another in defence, but taking it shift by shift.
Some times last night he was out there with Myers and Duggan on the fourth line, other shifts he’s rotating through the defensive ranks to keep the legs fresh on the backend, and that look to really help the Devils close the game out as while Mosey may be in need of a long nights sleep after the minute he’s logging in both positions in one game, it’s allowing the team to keep fresh so Ben Bowns gets more protection, and defensively they seal up any gaps they were showing later in games previously that allowed teams to get back into the game, similar to what happened just 24 hours before as the Blaze took a come from behind victory on Boxing Day.
Now with the Devils back up at the top of the table where they’re familiar, it’s in no way their league to lose. Belfast have recruited fantastically over the summer, and they’ve been able to replace the departing Francis Beauvillier with Chris Higgins who’s no stranger to this league and a fantastic talent at 32-years-old so has plenty left in the tank.
With the league improving as whole, it’s got the potential to be one of the more exciting races for the title the league has seen in a while. Over the past two years, the league champions have finished with a healthy margin ahead of the rest of the competition. The Devils finished 10 points ahead of the second place Manchester Storm last year, and seven points clear of the Giants.
Rewind to 2014/15, the Sheffield Steelers won the league with two points separating them and third place, with the Steelers, Braehead Clan and Devils all in contention to lift the silverware on the final day of competition. The way this season is shaping up with the improvements around the league to challenge the Devils, we could about to see a similar end to this season, and while they may test the heart rate of fan bases, in terms of excitement around the league it can be nothing but a good thing.
Featured Image – CardiffDevils.com