Following a double home weekend Slough finished their home run with a single game weekend and the opponents being the Sheffield Steeldogs.
For my money the Steeldogs have been the real surprise package of the season, for the last few years they’ve dwelled in the bottom half of the table with a few surprise results, usually in their own rink but other than that as expected they’ve occupied the lower half of the table.
Andre Payette has turned around their fortunes this year to a position where they are still in with an outside chance of league glory this season. They have qualified for the later stages of the cup competition for the first time in a long time and it would take some very strange happenings for them to not make the play-offs. That’s a massive turn around within 12 months.
All that turn around has been achieved with just 3 imports on the staff for the majority of the season. Some of has been played with just 2 as Payette himself has missed time through suspension. Like him or hate him as a player, on his performances this season you can’t under-rate him as a Coach.
The funds were released to him ahead of the signing deadline to bring in a fourth import which he has done. Raivis Kurnigins was brought in with a good pedigree but was pretty much anonymous in the game last night. Ozolins is a player you can’t help but notice while he’s on the ice, same for Gomenuik and Payette is usually impossible to not hear while on the ice but I can’t say I noticed Kurnigins do anything in the game. The other stand out player for the Steeldogs is Ben Bowns, the young netminder. He stands out in every game, he has fantastic stats and he reads the game well, positions himself well and executes well technically.
My worry for the Steeldogs is how when they cope when Bowns leaves which he undoubtedly could do. He has the makings of a top flight netminder and already is on a two way contract with the EIHL Hull Stingrays. If rumours regarding EIHL teams wanting to join EPL are true who knows what the structure of hockey will actually be in the future but Bowns certainly does have the potential to step up a level.
If Bowns has the desire to match his potential then his departure from Sheffield would leave Payette a massive problem. Yes he does have some good forwards who we found out last night can score for fun but without Bowns I wonder whether their roster could outscore oppositions rosters if they were shooting at a different netminder.
Last night the Steeldogs scored very early into the game. They failed to let the Jets settle and once they had the lead they forced the tempo of the game. Credit to Payette who had obviously done his research ahead of the game for the way he ran his bench. Every whistle, whether he was on the ice or the bench he was hurrying his players in the change to ensure he controlled the tempo of play and getting to 0-3 early on seemed to justify this tactic.
Doug Sheppard called the Jets time-out and taking time out of the game as well as the team talk that ensured showed the Jets could still score as Aaron Connolly got the home team on the board from the re-start. While the Jets didn’t score any further in the period their time-out also interrupted the rhythm of the visitors as the first period ended 1-3.
Going into the second period my thoughts were that the first goal scored would then dictate the rest of the game. I had believed it would have been the greater fire power of the Jets roster that scored the next goal but it turned out to be Sheffield making it 1-4. What happened in the middle period ended in a blow out as Sheffield ran away with the game ending the middle period 1-8.
One player in the Jets line-up who has proved himself as a pick the team up guy time and time again is Ryan Watt and he scored the first goal of the third period but Payette took the Steeldogs time-out and looked to consolidate his position. As it turned out after 9 goals in the first two periods there were only 2 in the final period, Ryan’s and one more from the Steeldogs to complete the result.
We’ve seen results of that magnitude at the Hangar twice before this season, but both of those in favour of the Jets, with big wins against Manchester and Telford. I honestly didn’t expect what happened last night but it’s down to two things in my opinion.
The first factor, as already discussed, is Payette’s excellent management of his team and the game. He matched his lines well against the Jets despite not having second change and he forced the tempo of the game with his quick line changes. The only team he needed to slow the game down he did with his time-out. My opinion him as a player hasn’t changed but my opinion of him as a Coach continues to grow.
The second factor in last night’s defeat for my mind was Darius Pliskauskas absence. One player doesn’t make a team, everyone knows that but his absence last night broke up the Jets most successful line of recent. The Pliskauskas, Davies, Watt line has generated so much offence of late for the Jets, not only scoring but in wearing down opposition defence and netminders with their tireless work effort and high shot rate. The absence of Pliskauskas meant that second line didn’t generate that offence and the go to scoring line wasn’t there to respond to Sheffield’s offensive success.
The bigger the gap in the game the more the chasing team has to open up and ends up playing less solid defence in order to try and close the gap. That’s what happened to the Jets last night as Sheffield increased the score line the Jets were forced chasing a game with less than 100% strength team.
Is this the sign of a dip for the Jets? I honestly doubt that. Was it a sign of the Steeldogs being a possibly run away success for the remainder of the season? I doubt that too. Credit to the Steeldogs who put in an accomplished performance against a Jets team that had probably their worst off-day of the season but with a night off on Sunday it’s an extra day’s rest for the Jets and a day to reflect on what went wrong. Practice no doubt will be even more focussed this Tuesday ahead of the next game on Wednesday against Swindon at the Link Centre.