Here we go.
The first “Super Round” of the 2014 AIHL season.
Seven games in two days.
In some seasons the 4th round (Easter weekend was really a leftover from round 1 or 2) is the taste tester for what a season will really be like.
This year however, continues to be different. Some key players are yet to arrive, or just arriving and not expected to be at full fitness this weekend.
Full strength or not, three of last years finalists have crucial games this weekend. It’s not unusual for top-seeded teams to struggle early in the season. Often it’s because they’re waiting on top-tier imports or Aussies to finish their playoffs or studies.
The top three-finishing AIHL teams from 2013 are currently the bottom three teams on the 2014 AIHL points ladder. While all three of the teams are likely to have the talent to make a strong recovery, 2014 is different.
Every season the vernacular is that this is a season that any team can win, blah blah blah. Early season results are notoriously unreliable, but the players performances across the league seem to indicate that 2014 actually is that type of season.
It gets interesting this weekend. On Saturday, last year’s two finalists, now early-season cellar dwellers, meet in Sydney.
It was meant to be a crowning date for the Sydney Ice Dogs.
Not only do they get to raise their banner at their first home of the season – they get to rub it in the noses of the North Stars, the team they beat in the Final.
But the mood will be a little sombre and perhaps nervous at the Liverpool Catholic Club, as the Ice Dogs are in a form slump on the ice, and don’t seem happy behind the scenes, either.
Their fiery goalie will be on the other benches, unable to play while suspended. Several key members of that 2013 team aren’t playing in 2014.
It’s not the ideal setting for an Ice Dogs celebration, and a loss on Saturday would be hard to swallow.
The North Stars will have a while yet to wait for Aussie college champ Beau Taylor, and without Taylor, Upton, and Martin in goal, the North Stars too are suffering a loss of depth.
On paper the North Stars top line of Danberg, Geric, and Wilson should be one of the best scoring lines in the league. So far, and that’s only for two games, the guys are snakebit and yet to register a goal. Wilson has the sole point from the top line, assisting a power play goal versus the Bears.
There is an obvious conclusion to this problem – one of these teams must win on Saturday and relieve some pressure going onto the Sunday game.
The Perth Thunder are sweating season 2014 too. Though currently in last place, the Thunder still seem quite capable of storming home to make the finals.
Unlike the Ice Dogs and North Stars, the Thunder seemed to increase depth rather than lose it during the off-season, and still have Justin Fox to arrive in Australia.
A big blow for the Thunder has been Corey Toy’s facial injury.
Toy’s surgery results and prognosis may end his season, having only played the one AIHL game.
The Bears have been a rebuilding team for a few seasons now, and have ripened into a solid team in 2014. The confidence they’ve won by beating North Stars twice already will have the Bears feeling that they’re going to Perth as favourites, and not without cause.
The Thunder, Ice Dogs and North Stars would all face a steep climb from the bottom of the point table, should they lose both games this weekend.
The other game on Saturday is the second Melbourne “Derby”, this time with the Mustangs hosting the Ice. The Mustangs are without J Hughes while still suspended, but are otherwise at full strength.
The Ice too are looking deep and in form coming into this weekend. On Sunday the Bears play their second game in Perth, and the Ice Dogs and North Stars also get a second chance at retribution.
The North Stars host the Brave, who play the Adrenaline in Canberra on Saturday. The Adrenaline themselves go on to Sydney to play the Ice Dogs at Liverpool.
The Brave and the Adrenaline are both brimming with confidence at the moment, though one of them has to lose on Saturday night. If either the Brave or Adrenaline can keep their good form going through to Sunday, that team has a chance to get serious on their drive to reach the 2014 AIHL Finals.