2021 Elite Series

The 2020/21 Elite League season was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic, but the Coventry Blaze were one of four teams – along with the Manchester Storm, Nottingham Panthers and Sheffield Steelers – who took part in the 2021 Elite Series.

The series was played behind closed doors at the National Ice Centre in Nottingham between April 3 and May 3, and saw each team play the other three twice at “home” and twice “away” for a 12-game “regular season” before a short play-off series, culminating in a best-of-three final.

Rosters were set at 20 players – five “protected” British players who had played for the participating clubs previously, seven additional British players from clubs not involved in the series who were selected in a draft, and eight imports. An additional three British players were also drafted as a “taxi squad” to provide cover for injuries and other unavailability. Subsequently, these players were added to the full roster, with teams allowed to ice 20 players for each game.

The Blaze’s established Brit core – netminder Jordan Hedley, defenceman David Clements and forwards Luke Ferrara, Ross Venus and Alex Forbes – made up head coach Danny Stewart’s protected list. In the draft, he took GB forward Mike Hammond and GB defenceman Paul Swindlehurst with his first two selections, then used his other picks to select younger players who it was hoped would thrive when given increased opportunities to play during the series – forwards Sam Duggan, Mac Howlett and Toms Rutkis, and defenceman/forward Cole Shudra  – along with young players who would benefit from their first taste of Elite level hockey – forwards Vanya Antonov and Austin Mitchell-King, defenceman Sam Russell and teenaged netminder Will Bray. Mitchell-King and Bray were former Blaze academy players.

The imports were a mixture of familiar former Blaze players – Janne Laakkonen, Chris Pohlkamp and Nicolai Bryhnisveen – and new faces including highly-rated young Norwegian defenceman Max Krogdahl and forward Simen Andre Edvardsen. First year professionals Tristan Keck and Nick Jermain both made the jump from NCAA hockey in North America, while another face familiar to Elite League fans, former Fife Flyers and Belfast Giants netminder Shane Owen, rounded out the roster.

Despite Ferrara being unavailable for the first three games as he finished the season with Krakow in Poland, Swindlehurst missing through injury, and a 6-1 loss to the Panthers in a warm-up game, the Blaze began the series brightly. A 3-2 overtime loss to the Storm in the opening game, with goals from Edvardsen and Hammond, was followed by a 3-1 win over the Panthers, which saw Keck score his first professional goal. But the mood was lowered by a disappointing 7-2 defeat to the Steelers, the only bright spot being a first professional goal for Jermain.

The team regrouped and, with Ferrara now in the line-up, secured a point against the Storm through a Clements goal with 34 seconds to go before eventually losing in overtime again 5-4, and a battling 3-1 victory over the Panthers. A 6-4 defeat to the Steelers was followed by a 4-3 win over the Storm, a 4-3 overtime victory over the Panthers and 5-3 loss to Sheffield. The final round of games followed a familiar pattern – a 7-5 loss to the Steelers, a 6-3 win against the Storm that saw Keck score his first pro hat-trick and Clements score a stunning coast-to-coast powerplay goal, and a 4-3 overtime loss to the Panthers.

The point from that last game against Nottingham enabled the Blaze to finish second in the “regular season” table behind Sheffield. They also finished the “regular season” with the leading goalscorer (Keck with 15), leading points scorer (Hammond with 23), and the netminder with the best save percentage (Owen with 91.51%). The team also boasted the best powerplay (32.08%) and penalty kill (84.31%).

All that translated into a two-legged play-off semi-final against the Panthers, with the result decided on aggregate score. A 2-0 loss in the “home” leg – which marked Swindlehurst’s first appearance of the series – left the Blaze with an uphill task and they got off to the worst possible start in the “away” leg the next night, conceding a goal after 25 seconds on the way to a 4-1 loss and a 6-1 aggregate defeat.

The stand-out performer in the series was Keck. Having joined the team with a reputation for speed and an eye for goal he more than lived up to expectations, scoring 15 goals and adding six assists. Fellow first-year pro Jermain averaged almost a point a game and impressed with his work rate playing on the same line as Keck and GB international Hammond, who showed again what a high-quality player he is.

At the other end of the ice, Owen was impressive and finished the series with a save percentage over 91% despite facing the most shots of any netminder. David Clements – given a leadership role as an assistant captain alongside Ferrara and Venus – also had an outstanding series and thoroughly deserved his first call-up to the GB squad for the World Championship in Latvia. He was joined on the GB roster by Ferrara, Venus, Hammond, Swindlehurst, Duggan and Hedley, who was named as third netminder after impressing when given the opportunity in goal.

All the young British players the club drafted took advantage of their opportunities. Duggan and Howlett were consistently impressive, while Shudra, Rutkis and Antonov – who had never played at the Elite level before – also gave good accounts of themselves. Russell benefitted from Swindlehurst’s injury to play in 13 of the 14 games, while Mitchell-King appeared in four games and registered an assist. Both could be ones to watch for the future.