So we’re just under a week out from the Trans Tasman Champions League kicking off, and Jane has asked me to provide a bit of a Kiwi perspective on the visiting teams.
I’m not exactly planning on offering any kind of scouting report — for one thing, I’m not giving the Aussie teams that kind of a leg up, thanks — this is more a snapshot so that the AIHL fans have an idea of who to watch on the Kiwi teams, and what to expect.
I’ve been following the NZIHL since the beginning of the 2011 season, and the Botany Swarm are my local team, so I’ve got the goods on them, and as a bonus on the side, some impressions of the Stampede as formed by the seven games I’ve seen them play. Kiwis gotta stick together, right?
To start, it’s probably important to note that the NZIHL season is only 4 weeks old at this point, and the teams coming over have only played 6 regular season games, along with 2 preseason friendlies each. So in that regard we may be a little rustier than our cousins across the ditch, but the NZIHL also plays the standard IIHF 20 minute period every game, which could be a factor in playing AIHL teams used to 15 minute periods. I’ve been reliably informed (hi Jane!) that the AIHL teams playing in the TTCL have a high fitness level, but having to add a new fourth line of players may affect team chemistry enough to swing the balance back in favour of the New Zealanders there. But before I kick off the Trans Tasman sledging this early, let’s get onto that overview.
Battleground: The Internet.
The Southern Stampede have one of the more delightfully trolly twitter feeds in the NZIHL, and can be found at http://www.twitter.com/sthstampede. Recent highlights have included them asserting after a loss that at least their team is better looking, as well as some creative ‘autocorrect’ errors when it comes to close rivals the Dunedin Chunder. Er, sorry, that’s ‘Thunder.’
The Melbourne Ice also seem to do a good line in chirping their opponents, but as much as I enjoyed the exhortation to bring chew toys for the game against the Dogs, I have to give the advantage in this one to the Stampede. Make us proud, boys.
As for the Botany Swarm, their social media interaction is fairly minimal, but anyone wanting to follow their game updates can find them on twitter at http://www.twitter.com/botanyswarm.
Battleground: The Rink
The Swarm were New Zealand champions the last two years running, most recently beating the Stampede 5-3 in a nailbiter to close out the season last August. However, roster changes and coaching changes across the board have meant the NZIHL landscape is quite different this year. Even as the teams have similar records for the season to date (2-4-0), much as it pains me, I think I have to give the Stampede a slight edge right now. Their goal differential is a little healthier (this may be an understatement) and while they split the games in Auckland in week 2, the Stampede were more able to take advantage of the Swarm’s lapses than vice versa.
The Stampede will be coming off two losses to the Dunedin Thunder last Friday and Saturday, and will be ready to change their fortunes against Melbourne and Newcastle. The Swarm are also coming off two losses, again to the Dunedin Thunder, but have had a bye this past weekend which will hopefully help them out on the injury front.
Four-time winners of the New Zealand league championship, the Swarm are based in East Auckland. After dominating last season, the Swarm have lost several key import players for this season, and taken a few losses in 2012 on the back of improved parity across the league. They tend to play a fast-paced game, relying on good offense and a tight defense to move the puck out of their zone and onto the attack.
New Zealand-born goalie Zak Nothling (#1) is the key to the Swarm’s defense, having represented New Zealand in the IIHF U18s, U20s, and Worlds, and having won the NZIHL Goaltender of the Year award five of the past seven years. After leading the league in save percentage and GAA last season, he’s had a rough start this year. …but if I apply the NZ/Australia exchange rate to his GAA this season it looks a lot better. (What? That’s totally how that works, right?)
The Swarm have a solid core group of forwards, most of whom have been with the club for a couple of seasons now. Their current scoring leader is 23-year-old Josh Hay (#21), with 7 points in 6 games. Other point-per-game players are Jordan Challis (#22) and KC Ball (#19), with 6 points each. Challis and Hay usually play on a line with Michael Attwell (#6), who is just a shade behind them with 5 points in 6 games.
The Hay-Attwell-Challis line is usually one of the most exciting and dynamic lines to watch, and tends to slot in on the second power play unit. Attwell is a competent center who’s good at the face-off dot. In the 2011 season, he was usually right in the middle of any extra-curriculars when things got chippy, so if the Trans Tasman games head that way, keep an eye out for him.
Challis’s stickhandling is an absolute joy to watch — he’s had a couple games this year where the puck’s been just about magnetically attracted to his stick. He’s also leading the team for PIMs at the moment, so you could possibly look at it as “when he’s good, he’s very very good and when he’s bad…”
Josh Hay’s another winger who’s a lot of fun to watch. He’s one of the faster skaters on the team, and tends to throw himself into the tough spots when needed. He’s also one of the longest-serving members of the Swarm, with over 80 games played.
KC Ball is the oldest skater on the Swarm’s roster, and acts as associate coach to boot. Along with Aleksandr Polozov (#16, currently injured) he’s one of the most consistent high performers on the squad. If I had to pick NZIHLers for a fantasy hockey team, he’d be a top five pick. Even as a relative newcomer to the game, I could easily identify him as one of the most talented guys on the roster, and as my eye for hockey has improved, that impression has only solidified further. If he has the puck, watch out.
Ian Wannamaker (#11) wears an A for the Swarm, and is another talented centerman. He’s also probably one of the better take-away guys I’ve seen in the league, forcing turnovers and outright fleecing opponents of the puck. This season, he’s been primarily a set-up man, with 4 assists in six games.
Keegan Harnett (#4) is one of the smaller skaters on the team, but makes up for that in sheer feistiness. He’s a guy to watch bull straight through opponents, or fight tooth and nail to keep the puck in the offensive zone.
Sam Boniface (#15) is new to me this season, as I gather he was out with an injury for all of last year, and hasn’t distinguished himself one way or another yet. Nor has Adam Soffer (#18), who’s been in the lineup since Polozov’s injury.
Import Jean-Marc Boucher (#3) has put together a respectable four points (2G, 2A) in the season to date. He’s been interesting to watch, and I get the feeling there’s going to be more where that’s come from. Fellow Canadian Patrick Bishop (#7) has also impressed with two goals; I look forward to getting to see more of what they can do this season.
The Swarm defense are very much a mixture of old and new this season. Captain Andrew Hay (#13) is another frequent national representative, and has played 85 games with the club. Usually paired with Richard Idoine (#27, also wearing an “A” this season), he plays on both the power play and penalty kill. He’s not the fastest skater, but he leads by example, playing with grit and determination. If you’re talking about guys laying the big hits along the boards or open-ice, this is usually the guy throwing them. If anyone’s dropping the gloves, odds are good he’s involved somewhere.
Lyle Idoine (#24) is also playing defense this season, having switched from forward last season (unless both my memory and large swathes of the internet are lying to me, at least). He’s been solid so far, and scored one of the prettier power play goals we’ve seen this season.
The defense is rounded out by Maxime Bettez (#5), Dion Guest (#17), Lukas Birgel (#10), Leith Thompson (#23), Jarrod Wood (#25) and Aaron Henderson (#33).
After 2 regular season victories from 6 games – more losses than they took in the entirety of the 2011 season – the Swarm have to be both hungry and frustrated; hopefully they’ll take that out on the Aussies. I’ll certainly be utilising my greatest hockey skill in yelling encouragement to do so bloody loudly.
As mentioned above, I’m significantly less familiar with the Stampede, so this is really just the highlights package here. The Stampede play a very physical, north-south game, and aren’t afraid to make body contact, or to take hits. They’ve had a few very high-scoring games this season already, and the offensive capability is absolutely there.
Thus far, the Stampede appear to be splitting goaltending duties between American-born Matt Swirtz and Kiwi Aston Brookes. Brookes’ numbers are better thus far, although Swirtz has been getting more starts, so I wouldn’t like to even hazard a guess as to Saturday’s starter.
Forwards Brett Speirs (#5) and captain Simon Glass (#10) are both guys to watch; with good hands and a lot of speed. They’re both offensive threats, especially if sprung on a breakaway.
US-imports Brian Horwitz (#15) and Michael Weber (#27) are currently leading the Stampede in points, with 8 (4G, 4A each); closely followed by both Tommy Zizian (#19) and Brett Spiers (#5). Zizian is a guy who plays a lot bigger than he actually is, and has also been collecting PIMs and points with equal vigor.
Another new addition this season is Canadian import Joel Cleroux (#26), who at 6’3” and around 100kg has a lot of mass to throw around. He’s coupled that with an excellent eye for the net, and has stockpiled 5 points to lead the defense in scoring.
Mitchell Frear (#16) is another of their more offensively-minded defensemen, and he certainly stood out to me last season as a scoring threat. One of the Under-20s on the squad, he’s one to watch in the years ahead, too.
Battleground: The Penalty Box
It is a box at the Icehouse, right? It’s just Adelaide that has the picnic table, isn’t it? …but I digress.
The Stampede have racked up 228 PIMs from 15 different players, including 7 ten minute misconducts and 2 misconducts leading to supplementary discipline.
The Swarm have racked up 164 PIMs from 16 different players, including 6 ten minute misconducts.
Advantage: well, no one, really. A five minute major is nobody’s friend. But overall the Stampede look more likely to spend time on the kill. Luckily for them, their penalty kill appears to be solid, and they’ve even picked up two short-handed goals in six games. Watch out, Aussies.
Battleground: the Fans
I’m pretty sure Chelsea, Jane and I will still be friends in the morning? But I’m bringing a couple other New Zealanders with me as backup anyway. At the end of the day, the chirping in our row should be pretty epic.
But best of luck to all the teams, and I look forward very much to getting to meet fans across the ditch, and seeing what the Aussie hockey scene is all about. Regardless of who ends up winning (go Kiwi!), I’m looking forward to getting to see four great games (go Kiwi!), and getting to see how the AIHL shapes up (hopefully not as good as the NZIHL!)
…we still invented the pavlova, though.
Lastly, for anyone who suspects they’ll have forgotten all of this come Saturday, please find below a handy print-at-home guide**!