First off - a result from last night. The Nottingham Panthers shutout the Hull Stingrays 2-0 in Nottingham, goals coming from Steve Pelletier on the powerplay, and Patrik Wallenberg got his 20th of the season. Panthers NM Tom Askey returned to the side after a short absence, and both he and Stingrays NM Ladi Kudrna were in good form. This probably aided Hull's chances of winning; their defensive road style is improved when Kudrna is in form and the games are tight, breakway chances get taken and games are won. But not last night. The result leaves Nottingham 3rd in the table, a point behind 2nd placed Sheffield, and Hull still in 9th place, 5 points off the playoffs.
This weekend sees the start of the British Knockout Cup, with six of the eight games over the next two days in that competition. Here's the full list of fixtures (EIHL = league fixtures, BKO = knockout cup games, home team on the left)
Sat 5th Jan
Basingstoke Bison vs Cardiff Devils - BKO
Newcastle Vipers vs Edinburgh Capitals - BKO
Sheffield Steelers vs Manchester Phoenix - EIHL
Belfast Giants vs Nottingham Panthers - EIHL
Sun 6th Jan
Cardiff Devils vs Basingstoke Bison - BKO
Coventry Blaze vs Sheffield Steelers - BKO
Hull Stingrays vs Manchester Phoenix - BKO
Edinburgh Capitals vs Newcastle Vipers - BKO
Two of the ties will be completed this weekend. Basingstoke will hoping to take advantage of Cardiff being shortbenched - netminder Phil Osaer remains injured and influential captain & enforcer Brad Voth is serving a six game suspension, whilst the Bison are hoping some their injured players will be returning. Look for the Bison to really push forward the home advantage on the Saturday leg and ride the lead through to qualification on the Sunday.
The other tie to be completed is between the Newcastle Vipers and the Edinburgh Capitals. Both teams will be looking to progress after struggling recently. Newcastle have 3 wins and 7 losses in their last ten games and well, to be brutally honest, having only won 9 out of 37 games, Edinburgh have been struggling all season and sit at the basement of the league. Crucially though, the Capitals won the last game between the two sides just last Sunday 7-3, and are looking for an upturn in fortunes. This game could go either way, but home advantage on Sunday in game 2 for Edinburgh may be the key factor.
Also playing in the BKO are between Hull and Manchester - Manchester have the stronger side and will look to win even though they are on the road. In player-coach Tony Hand they have arguably the best British player ever to play the game, and still leads the British players in points and 6th overall in the league with 15+38=53 in 36 games. He is complemented by sniper Joe Tallari, who despite missing a portion of the season still leads the league in goals with 31. Hull will be defensive and look to keep the game tight.
Finally - we have Coventry and Sheffield. A common football chant over in England when one team dominates another is 'Can We Play You Every Week?'. We've got our wish here in Coventry as Sheffield return after a 7-1 defeat at the hands of the Blaze last Sunday. Ashley Tait, the key to the Steelers offensive production was missing after the Voth hit (that led to Voth's suspension) and is unknown as to whether he will be returning. Coventry are at full strength, and the league leaders will be looking to gain an advantage for the return leg 10 days later. In my opinion, and I am somewhat biased, Coventry will have the same offensive-style gameplan as last week and look to hit the Steelers early, a tactic that was very fruitful last week.
The remaining two league games are between Sheffield vs Manchester, and Nottingham travel to Belfast, both on Saturday. Sheffield will perhaps be looking to put Sunday's defeat to Coventry behind them with a big win, although Manchester will be a tough game for them. The close proximity of the two teams means there will be a large and vocal support for the Phoenix as well. Belfast are entertaining Nottingham, and Belfast have been on a good run of late after an abysmal start to the season. Player-coach Ed Courtenay has been the main reason for this resurgence, and after a tough game against Hull last night, the trip across the water to Nottingham is likely to be one too many for the Panthers.
No game for me personally tonight - as Coventry have the extra day off - I will be watching the Aston Villa v Man Utd FA Cup football game on tv. Traditionally the first weekend in January is a big cup weekend in football in England, and hopefully Coventry will do well on Sunday night!