It’s the halfway point and the Guildford Flames go into 2019 with their first ever EIHL semi-final to look forward to! But however you dress it up, it’s been a rough December which has separated the best from the rest, and unfortunately, the Flames have fallen into the latter category.
Stats don’t lie, but they can be perceived in various ways. The above table for example looks bad. If you work out points per game, it’s even worse. But – 3 losses against the Devils and single losses against the Panthers, Giants, Flyers & Steelers make up 7 of the 11 games – Teams all who sit above the Flames in the league. Outside of those losses the Flames picked up a huge win away against the Panthers and produced one of the comebacks of the century when they pulled back 3 goals in the final 2 minutes against Coventry live on Freesports.
And the Flames are sitting 4 points clear in the Patton Conference. And in theory most of the hard work is nearly done – 17 of the remaining 28 games (at time of writing) are against teams in the bottom half of the league.
There are 2 big concerns though. 1 is the injuries. Evan Ritt has been out for several games and could miss a few more and Ian Watters, who was joint top scorer at the time of injury, has missed a couple of games and is listed as day to day by Paul Dixon. Whilst the Flames are carrying a spare import skater, the loss of Watters from arguably the best top line in the league is a massive blow. With Ritt gone from the 3rd line and Janssen moved to the 1st to fill in for Watters, the Flames only ‘settled’ line is the one which has been chopped and changed all season due to the late arrival of Ferguson, TJ Foster and the constant changing between Crooks and King.
The second concern is the home form:
Last season the Flames only lost 5 league games at home in regulation time. There was also 1 OT loss and 2 shootout losses, so 8 losses in total, but 3 points picked up. 9 losses already this season, and not a single overtime period played.
One final comparison on the previous season – At the halfway point the Flames sat 3rd overall, averaging 1.29 points per game, they had the highest average of goals scored per game with 4.07. This season, just 1.06 points per game and 3.29 goals per game. Interestingly though, last season saw the Flames average 3.04 goals against – This season has an average of 3.03.
There’s always talk amongst fans that the defence is the issue, but maybe it’s simply the forward lines which is where the problem lies? It will come as little surprise that John Dunbar, Kruise Reddick and Ian Watters are averaging over a point per game, but they are the only Flames players who are scoring at that level. On the other hand, Ferguson and King are both a country mile away from the points return they had last year.
At the start of the season, you would be hard pressed to find a single Flames fan who wasn’t happy with the signings of Crooks and King to join Ferguson on the 2nd line. But Ferguson arrived late due to visa issues, Crooks struggled initially to adapt to a new country and life as a professional and King is going through arguably his worst season of his career. The arrival of TJ Foster was expected to see the 2nd line suddenly spark into life, but despite a fair points return of 17 in 21 games and some flashes of brilliance, he’s yet to show why he was touted as being ‘far too good for this league’.
Whilst there appears to be negativity in the above, Jamie Crooks has been in fine form and came second in the December Player of the Month award vote, missing out by just 6 votes. The winner of this months award is a man who could quite easily pick up the award each month. Ever-consistent and ever-reliable – A big congratulations to the Guilford point scoring machine!
Firstly, congratulations! You’ve come into this season off the back of an incredible first year with the Flames and you are still looking untouchable out there. In fact, looking at all players to have skated 85+ games in the EIHL, you are the 7th highest points per game scorer of all time in the league! How do you feel the season is going for you so far?
“Hey thanks for having me. Yeah I think the season has gone pretty good so far. I feel good out there and the play of both Watters and Reddick have been amazing this season so it’s definitely made my job easy.”
December was tough with 13 games, and January sees another 11. How are you feeling physically?
“It’s been a busy portion of the schedule but I feel good. This is an important time of the season to take extra care of your body.”
Whilst the league title appears to be out of reach at this point, the Flames are in control in the Patton Conference and there’s the Challenge Cup semi-final later this month. Despite being on the end of some unlucky losses recently, is the mood in the camp still positive given that the team is still well on target to pick up at least 1 trophy?
“Yeah it’s definitely been a tough stretch of games lately as we’ve been playing some good hockey despite not getting the results. The mood in the dressing room is still good, we have a lot of confidence and optimism in our team. Were all on the same page as far as realising we need to turn things around at this point and we’re all willing to do whatever it takes.
“We really appreciate the support from the flames fans this season. It’s been an interesting season so far with some highs and lows but we have confidence that there’s a lot of good things coming in this new year.”
December proved that the Guildford Flames are not the best team in the league. But they are still in the running for 3 other trophies, and it would be a huge shock if they didn’t get at least 1 of them. The Patton Conference is theirs to lose – At this point neither Manchester, Coventry nor MK have the strength in their rosters that Guildford do. The Challenge Cup semi-finals could go either way and then it’s anyone’s game in the final and then the playoffs. Should Guildford make the top 8, then it’s just 2 games to make it to Nottingham.
Just the 11 games in January for the Flames to navigate, starting with 2 away against the Cardiff Devils and the Nottingham Panthers, followed by a single weekend game against MK. The following weekend is a home & away double header against Coventry, and that is followed by a trip to the Storm Shelter for a 3 week run of mid-week games. Can the Flames finally win in Altringham? And that Saturday can they finally beat Fife the next Saturday? A long trip to Dundee the next day, followed by the Challenge Cup semi-final first leg at the Spectrum on Wednesday 23rd. Coventry visit again on the 26th, then another long trip to Scotland on the 27th to face Glasgow. The month ends with the Steelers visiting, which is live on Freesports.
The Flames need a big month in the league following a disappointing December. 4th place is very much up for grabs, and given the form of the Panthers, even 3rd could be achievable if the Flames can put a string of results together in 2019. On the other hand, Flames are just 3 points from 9th.
With 10 league games, surely the target has to be 7 wins in January. That should see the Flames build on the 3 point gap from 9th and go a long way to securing a playoff spot. But the biggest game comes on the 23rd – Can the Flames put a stop to the Panthers winning record at the Spectrum ahead of the 2nd leg of the Cup?
Saturday 1st – League
Guildford Flames 3 – 8 Nottingham Panthers
Sunday 2nd – League
Coventry Blaze 5 – 6 OT Guildford Flames
Saturday 5th – League
Cardiff Devils 4 – 3 OT Guildford Flames
Sunday 8th – League
Guildford Flames 1 – 3 Belfast Giants
Wednesday 12th – Challenge Cup Quarter Final L1
Sheffield Steelers 4 – 4 Guildford Flames
Saturday 15th – League
Fife Flyers 3 – 1 Guildford Flames
Sunday 16th – League
Nottingham Panthers 2 – 6 Guildford Flames
Saturday 3rd – Challenge Cup Quarter Final L2
Guildford Flames 5 – 4 Sheffield Steelers
Saturday 22nd – League
Sheffield Steelers 3 – 2 Guildford Flames
Sunday 23rd – League
Guildford Flames 2 – 4 Cardiff Devils
Saturday 26th – League
MK Lightning 0 – 1 Guildford Flames
Saturday 27th – League
Guildford Flames 6 – 3 MK Lightning
Sunday 30th – League
Guildford Flames 2 – 3 Cardiff Devils
Featured image – John Uwins Photography