Tomorrow night will see the first 2v3 game take place in a reformed NZIHL playoff format that has successfully seen the season maintain a sense of importance throughout, post-season positions were not finalised until the regular season had concluded.
And so we have the Dunedin Thunder versus the West Auckland Admirals, battling it out in a one-off game to decide who will progress through to the Birgel Cup Finals to face the defending champion Skycity Stampede.
Head-to-head between the two sides, the Admirals hold the advantage having won three of their four games this season.
In the opening round the Thunder likely gave last year’s runner-up a scare by putting up six goals in a high-scoring 8-6 loss, followed by a 4-3 win in a tightly contested second game to split the series in Dunedin.
From that point onwards, the West Aucklanders went on a eight-game winning streak, including a series sweep of the Stampede at home. That streak set them up for the position they are currently in, securing one of three playoff spots, while the aforementioned defending champions went on their own hot streak to claim top spot. By seasons end, the Stampede’s streak stands at ten games.
As for Dunedin, they have been relatively consistent throughout the year, never losing too many games in a row (their worst was three), while putting up some memorable wins – including a 4-3 road victory over the Stampede with five seconds to claim the Toa Kauhanga Riri Tio trophy for the first time.
The two sides met again in round six, this time at Paradice Avondale with the Admirals sweeping that series 6-4 and 2-1.
The implementation of the 2v3 playoff game was a solid idea by the league – having the Thunder in the playoffs makes things a little more interesting. While some may argue that the Admirals peaked too early, when in reality they have been tested by both injuries and suspensions to key players, the Thunder could be reaching their full potential at the right end of the season.
Coming into the business end of 2018, the Admirals import ranks have been somewhat depleted – namely their two star forwards. Mike Verschuren has been suspended three games for slashing, but having also sustained a concussion in round 9, he was ruled out indefinitely for the remainder of the season and has since returned to the Netherlands. Craig Peacock’s lower-body injury also saw him returning home to the UK.
In nine games Peacock tallied 17 points, while in ten games Verschuren scored 19 – both provided significant offensive production, but in their absence other players have stepped up. Frazer Ellis and AJ Spiller both cracked the 20-point mark this season, while Dale Harrop (18) and Shaun Harrison (16) showed why they are two of New Zealand’s most exciting players to watch.
Last week Harrop was named in the Ice Blacks squad for the Winter Games, with Harrison narrowly missing out on selection according to a recent interview with NZ head coach Anatoly Khorozov. In total, West Auckland boasts seven current internationals in their squad to the Thunder’s four: Paris Heyd, Joe Orr, Tristan Darling, and Benjamin Gavoille.
Heyd has been terrorising goalies all year, putting up MVP worthy numbers with 35 points (14 goals, 21 assists) in a full 16-game season to finish third in the scoring race. The Thunder captain hasn’t had to do it all by himself however, with Brandon Egli (26 points), Gavoille (20), Orr (16), and Charles Plaisir (14) all contributing to Dunedin’s offense.
Speaking of goalies, the masked men could be a key factor in this matchup with West Auckland edging out Dunedin in that department. The Admirals tandem of Csaba Kercso-Magos and Rick Parry has been rock solid as the second and third best goalies in the league respectively, seeing them both selected into the national side.
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But in a single playoff game like this, anything could happen, and it’s guaranteed to be a must-watch match – don’t forget to bribe your boss to get out of work early, puck drop is scheduled for 5pm.
Photos by Sari Robins-Laughton