With the conclusion of the regular season last weekend, focus has shifted to the Finals Series as two-time defending champions SkyCity Stampede look to stranglehold a three-peat on the coveted Birgel Trophy.
For the first time in six seasons, a Finals game will be played outside of the South Island. And for the first time in their history, the West Auckland Admirals will host a Finals game at Paradice Avondale. After losing the Final in the very first NZIHL season back in 2005, and then again in 2010, the Admirals make just their third Finals appearance. After a charging start to the season, winning all but one of their first round games, the West Aucklanders have suffered a number of injury setbacks to key players, losing captain Justin Daigle for the season among others, with the second half of the season seeing some of that early momentum lost.
With a strong New Zealand contingent, elite goaltending from both Rick Parry and Csaba Kercso-Magos Jr, they will also be leaning heavily on a stellar group of imports. Adrian Toth topped the regular season points chase, whilst both Henric Andersen and T.J. Battani were in the top four scorers.
Meanwhile, the regular season table-topping SkyCity Stampede appear to be peaking at exactly the right time, coming off a scoring feast in Christchurch two weeks ago. The Southerners have won the Birgel four times already, and are looking for their third Championship in a row after beating the Red Devils in both 2015 and 2016. They are the form team in the competition and bring an experienced roster who are familiar with the high-pressure Finals environment.
Stampede stalwarts Matthew Schneider and Mike McRae have been joined this season by Canadian Colin McIntosh who just missed the regular season scoring title by a single point. McIntosh has complemented Schneider, McRae and Ottawa native and hard-man Jeremy Akeson as this group accounted for 60% of the Stampede’s points. Finding a way to stop the high-octane offence from both teams will be critical in determining the victor.
Akeson, Mitch Frear and Hayden Argyle all bring a wealth of experience to that task and will be backstopped by an in-form Aston Brookes between the pipes. Brookes has played the most minutes of any NZIHL Goaler this season, and his impressive numbers of 2.54 GAA and 90.95% SVS are bested only by Admiral youngster Csaba Kercso-Magos Jr.
The Admirals will look to Ice Blacks Nick Craig, Blake Jackson, Gareth McLeish and Remy Sandoy, along with A.J. Spiller to patrol their D zone. The SkyCity Stampede will also be trying to send off their loyal servant Braden Lee with another Birgel on his shelf, as the 33-year-old announced his retirement from the League having played in the yellow and blue since 2004.
Looking at the regular season games between these two deserving Finalists, the games will likely be highly skilled, physical affairs with every piece of ice just moments away from a big hit. With 9 of the top 12 NZIHL scorers on the ice in this Finals series, twine is sure to be troubled, and rope is sure to be ripped!
The Admirals will host Game 1 of the Finals Series this Saturday, 19 August at 4.30pm at Paradice Avondale, whilst the Stampede take home ice advantage for Games 2 and 3 (if required), at Queenstown Ice Arena on Friday 25 August and Saturday 26 August, both at 7.00pm
Tickets are still available online:
Photo credit Sandrina Huish
Written by Tim Ratcliffe