The Australian Ice Hockey League finals series teases fans with a week-long build-up, like major football codes, but its unique sudden death play-offs schedule makes a virtue of necessity. Two eagerly awaited semi-finals are analysed all week before being played on the Saturday evening, then there is just one sleep to contemplate the final match-up, the grand final on Sunday, starting just 18 hours after the second semi is completed.
The finals schedule is determined in large part by logistical imperatives – it is not viable to extend it over another weekend. But after a season as tightly fought as the 2013 AIHL edition, the set-up of the deciders feels appropriate. There is due kudos and attention afforded all the contenders who have helped create such a thrilling season. Their precarious status, one game from oblivion or the ultimate play-off, somehow honours the efforts of the teams who came so close – Adelaide Adrenaline and Melbourne Mustangs, who remained in contention deep into August, effectively making many regular season games "finals", a month early.
Then the winner takes the historic spoils – the not inconsiderable bounty of the Goodall Cup, ice hockey's third oldest trophy. There is no drawn-out game five-six storyline, just 50 intense minutes in which every check, pass, shot and deke has out-sized meaning.
It makes the weekend a festival of hockey for the diehard. A feast of high-class games is the best way for fans to depart the season.
The line-up for these cut-throat deciders was not finalised until two weeks ago, and the order of the place-getters was not set in stone until the second last game. Only eight points separate the league leading Sydney Ice Dogs from the fourth-placed Melbourne Ice.
The tension and closeness of the contests between the finalists during the season suggests that not only will the season come down to single games, but single moments will determine which team stands alone after the three matches this weekend.
The Ice Dogs and the Thunder are coming off six- and seven-game winning streaks. Newcastle had won five in a row in emphatic fashion before a shootout loss in a second road game at the Icehouse last weekend. And having been 1-4 down to the dynamic young Mustangs, Newcastle's effort to draw the game in regulation time hardly halted its considerable momentum.
The only team of the quartet with questionable recent form are the Melbourne Ice, who were hammered 5-1 on home ice by Newcastle last Saturday. But before that, they had sealed their finals berth with courageous, undermanned wins over the Mustangs and the Adrenaline on the road. And with their record of three championships in a row, including a come-from-behind win in 2012, there are few pundits keen to dimiss the prospect of an Ice revival, especially with the prospect of elite forward Matt Armstrong and key defenceman Todd Graham returning to the line-up.
As Mustangs coach Brad Vigon told the AIHL website: "They seem to be somewhat off the pace that they've been on the last few years. But . . . in a two-game series it could be anybody's game. They wouldn't be my favourite but they know how to win. They've done it the last three times in a row. You can't count them out."
Semi-final 1: Sydney Ice Dogs (1) v Melbourne Ice (4), Saturday, September 7, 4pm
Ice have not beaten the Dogs in four attempts this year, but two of the games ended in draws, and there was little in three of the contests. Ice overcame obstacles internal and external to triumph in 2012, experience the Ice Dogs cannot match of late. Ice dictated their semi-final against the Dogs last year from the outset, leading 3-0 after five minutes before cruising home 6-2. Ice will be stronger on Saturday than for weeks, and in front of the biggest home crowd in the competition they will be out to prove they are still a team playing for each other and capable of matching the best.
Ice skipper Jason Baclig rattled the ironwork three times last weekend. With Matt Armstrong (rear) back in harness, he should find the net as usual.
However, the Dogs are a different team in 2013, more disciplined, potent, organised and consistent. They have been powered by a sensational year from Australian goalie Anthony Kimlin, one of the most influential local players in the competition. The nerveless heroics of their net-minder left the Dogs able to absorb a lot of pressure and depend on less scoring opportunities themselves and gave them a 3-1 record in shootouts. But they are a complete unit – their defensive structure is sound, their passing in transition is crisp and forwards Simon Barg and Mike Puntereri are as damaging as any in the league.
The Ice Dogs deserve firm favouritism, but if Ice find their best form and they can crack the Kimlin code – they soundly outshot the Dogs in all four matches this season – bookies will be shivering.
As good as it gets: Anthony Kimlin is a difference-maker in net for the Ice Dogs.
Pros: Home ice advantage; finals (winning) experience; return of key players from injury.
Cons: Poor record against North Stars and Ice Dogs in 2013; injury doubts over key players; lacking one key scoring option; have they hit the wall after being fiercely hunted as reigning triple champions?
Pros: Great form, confidence; elite goalie; efficient defensive structure.
Cons: Have not won a final since 2008; may lack depth of scoring options of rivals.
The time has come for the Ice Dogs, league leaders for most of the season.
Semi-final 2: Newcastle North Stars (2) v Perth Thunder (3), Saturday, September 7, 7.30pm
The North Stars look to lack nothing. Goalie Olivier Martin is as impassable as Kimlin, the import forwards Jeff Martens and Pier-Olivier Cotnoir and Dominic Osman are among the league's elite scorers, and they have the best goal differential in the competition, showcasing a sound all-round game. In humbling Melbourne Ice last Saturday, they looked cohesive, dynamic and fierce, rendering Ice impotent and haphazard. And they appear to possess greater line depth this season, with Jayson Chalker and Adam Geric joining Beau Taylor and Dave Upton as locals of note.
North Stars net-minder Olivier Martin has been as good as any goalie in 2013.
Thunder have effectively had three seasons in 2013. The first, before their imports landing, was disastrous. They lost 3-9 at home to Ice and 2-13 away to the North Stars before the cavalry arrived. The second phase highlighted star recruit “Magic” Mike Forney, who averaged a league-high 2.9 points in his 16 games. Fellow imports Matt Strueby and Joe Tolles were also elite performers, but the Thunder, predicated on crowd-pleasing attack, often needed seven or eight goals to seal a win. Then came the premature departure of all three big name imports. Phase three began for Perth with the lower-profile replacements Brian Berger, Dan Mohle and in particular goalie Dan Clarke. The former two provided plenty of pace and goals, but Clarke made goals much harder to get against Perth, and in July Thunder set up their season by beating or matching all of the finals contenders. In August, they needed to sweep Adelaide on the road to confirm their finals place, and they toughed it out impressively. Remaining phase one import Ken Rolph is still an A-grade scoring threat, and the depth and pace of their local contingent keeps their shifts consistently in the face of their opponents.
Perth's pace makes it a tricky challenge for defences.
Pros: Burning desire and finals experience after being pipped by Ice in past two grand finals; great depth of scoring options; elite, in-form goalie; in top form.
Cons: Travelled interstate (to Melbourne) last weekend, unlike rivals.
Pros: Sense of mission as second-year franchise; relentless pace of attacks and aggressive attitude; depth of youthful talent.
Cons: Inexperience; question marks over their ability to restrict opponent's scoring.
A change of goalie made a big impact upon Perth.