Words by Joe Durie, with stats contributions by Logan Swinkels.
And then, there were two…
For the second straight year, the West Auckland Admirals and Skycity Stampede will meet in the NZIHL Finals to compete for the Birgel Cup. Both teams have proven over the course of this winter that they are the two best teams in the league, enjoying long winning streaks during the year with stacked lineups from the goal out.
There’s also the fact that these two teams don’t seem to like each other much. The rivalry has ramped up significantly since last year when the Admirals overtook the Canterbury Red Devils’ as the Stampede’s greatest threat for the championship – culminating in some great hockey whenever they meet.
Hate is a strong word, but it’s fair to say these sides bring out both the best, and the worst, in each other.
This year the Admirals swept the round 2 series in West Auckland before things got nasty when the rivalry was renewed for round 7 in Queenstown. Following a blowout 7-0 win by the Stampede in the Friday night game, an incident occurred as the clock wound down for the second period of Saturday’s rematch that began with an altercation between Admirals goaltender Csaba Kercso-Magos and the Stampede’s Colin McIntosh, culminating in an all-out brawl with each side handed four suspensions – an appeal later saw two one-game suspensions lifted for the Admirals.
Both teams since went their separate ways but have seem destined to meet again in the Finals for a rematch of 2017 as the Stampede are in pursuit of an unprecedented fourth straight title, while the Admirals are chasing down the dream of their first ever.
What do the stats say?
This year the Stampede’s special teams have put up numbers that a few NHL teams would be jealous of. They will be a real challenge for the Admirals if they find themselves filling up the penalty box – although looking at those numbers, the Queenstown club has struggled at times with discipline, leading the NZIHL in penalty minutes. However, their league-best penalty killing units have done the business when needed – allowing the fewest powerplay goals in 2018 with 13 (Admirals allowed 14 on twenty fewer PKs).
There isn’t much separating the sides when it comes to scoring efficiency – but the Stampede do fire the puck far more than their West Auckland opponents this season, registering 728 shots on goal to the Admirals’ 665. The Dunedin Thunder are leading the league with 732, although that total will be easily overtaken sometime during game 1.
The Queenstown Ice Arena has been an absolute fortress for the Stampede again this year and it will be a tough ask for the Westies to win two games there if that’s what this series boils down to.
What will make it even tougher for the Admirals is the departure of their two import forwards Mike Verschuren & Craig Peacock. It will be pivotal for them to win game 1 of the series this weekend in Auckland – their key Kiwi forwards like Dale Harrop, Shaun Harrison, Ryan Ruddle and Nick Henderson will be relied on heavily for capitalising on any scoring opportunities they get.
The experienced Stampede group will have captain and man-giant Matt Schneider, the league’s top goal and point scorer, leading from the front with a determined core of veterans desperate to do something that has never been done in NZIHL history. Even if Schneider doesn’t fire, there is still a few other potent weapons in their arsenal that also need to be contained, including his left-hand man Mike McRae (36 points in 12 games).
While there is plenty of fire power on both sides, it’s the masked men who make a living in the blue paint that could be the deciding factor. If the Stampede’s starting goalie Daniel Lee continues his recent hot streak, the Admirals will have a hard time getting anything going – Lee’s current shutout streak stands at 124 minutes and 19 seconds.
Meanwhile the Admirals’ tandem of Kercso-Magos and Rick Parry has been solid too, but statistically it’s a close call between Kercso-Magos and his Queenstown counterpart. The Admirals tender has the better save percentage at .933 to Lee’s .931, while Lee has the better the goals against average at 2.55 to Kercso-Magos’ 2.64. On top of that, Lee has 3 shutouts to his name versus CKM’s singular donut game coming in West Auckland’s round 9 matchup with the Botany Swarm.
The netminders are out to prove they’re New Zealand’s number one and there’s plenty of scoring threats across the board, this should be one helluva Finals series!
Tickets are still available for game 1 in Auckland, but game 2 in Queenstown on the 24th has SOLD OUT. If there is a third and final deciding game in the series, tickets will go on sale following the conclusion of game 2.
So get yours now and of course don’t forget, if you can’t make it out to the games, they will be live streamed on the NZIHL YouTube channel.
NZIHL Finals Schedule:
Skycity Stampede v West Auckland Admirals – Paradice Avondale, Auckland
Aug 18th at 4:40pm
West Auckland Admirals v Skycity Stampede – Queenstown Ice Arena, Queenstown
Aug 24th at 7pm
Aug 25th at 7pm (If necessary)
Main photo: James Allan