Let's set the scene. Coventry Blaze are the most successful club in UK ice hockey since the start of the EIHL in 2003. They are the reigning League Champions (Read here for why it's so important to win the League!)
and also hold the Challenge Cup. They have won the League twice, the Challenge Cup twice and the Playoffs once. They have been in the final of the British Knockout Cup for the past two seasons, and the Challenge Cup for the past three. They are, to use a horrible cliche, the team to beat.
There was always going to be a struggle this season. How do you repeat a championship-winning season? The style of the team changed dramatically, the defensive style of hockey (not the trap or the delay, just a solid foundation to build a team on) was dismantled for a more attacking line up. Defensive defencemen Reid Simonton and Samy Nasreddine left, leaving space for GB captain and offensive defenceman Jon Weaver (70-odd points last season and well over a point a game for Newcastle) to come in. Curtis Huppe signed from the Belfast Giants to add even more goal scoring. One big loss was team captain Ashley Tait to Sheffield, but after five years and three league trophies at two levels, he was looking for a new challenge and the chance to play on the same team as his brother Warren was too big to miss. The majority of the team remained the same though.
The concern at the start of the season was the defence - traditionally always strong in Coventry with good goaltending - this season appeared to be lightweight and perhaps slow. A pre-season 7-6 loss to Nottingham was perhaps the worst possible thing that the team could show. Yes, we had signed all the offensive talent, but if we can't shut down teams and lose games even when we score six, this is a problem.
However, the team quickly organised themselves after that loss. Whilst failing to qualify for the semi finals of the Challenge Cup for the first time in four seasons, the league standings were going from strength to strength. Scoring four goals a game was commonplace as the Blaze forwards tore up the league, and the defence came to an understanding. Rumun Ndur was lost to a season ending injury after just two games, but was replaced by David Vychodil on the blue line, who whilst not producing offensively, gave a solid stay-at-home presence the team needed.
The team took part in the dreaded Continental Cup in Europe, having qualified as the UK champions. I say dreaded, since the team that plays usually comes back and has a horrendous losing streak and stacks of injuries. It's known as the Curse of the Continental Cup
. They faced Aalborg (Denmark), HK Slavija (Slovenia) and Red Bull Salzburg (Austria). Red Bull were the pre-tournament favourites, they had a team stacked with ex-NHL talent including Ric Jackman, who had been playing with a certain Southern Californian Stanley Cup winning side the previous year. This was talent that the Blaze just couldn't dream to compete with. Salzburg had lost 7-6 to (my beloved) LA Kings in preseason - Kopitar and others would have a field day in the Skydome!
But they did compete. And then some. A 3-2 overtime win for Coventry against Red Bull was the highlight of the weekend. The European hockey world was somewhat shocked - how could this bunch of part-timers come and beat one of the favourites for the competition? The simple answer is, we're not that bad over here after all. Red Bull failed to qualify, as did Coventry, with Aalborg progressing as the group winners. The team had new found confidence in themselves - they could take on anyone.
Which they promptly did with style. Between the Continental Cup and Christmas the team had a record of 14 wins (inc. overtime and pens) and 4 losses. The few losses came just before Christmas when injuries to key players ravaged the side. Vychodil was released to bring in KC Timmons from Manchester as a utility player, and Troy Neumeier from Belfast was brought in temporarily to cover Huppe's injury.
Despite all the ins and outs, the team now sit at the summit of the league, with 50 points from 31 games (24-5-2), 8 points clear of 2nd placed Sheffield, who they beat comprehensively 7-1 last Sunday night in the final game of 2007. Forward Adam Calder leads the league in scoring with 67 points (29+38) in 35 competitive games, as well as the league high 14 PP goals. Second on that list is captain Sylvain Cloutier with 11 PP goals, and Blaze having the highest total of man-advantage markers. So far - the score one more than you philosophy would appear to be working!