It’s too early to draw any concrete conclusions about the new Elite League season and how it will unfold, but a couple of narratives surrounding the Coventry Blaze have already coalesced.
Danny Stewart endured a difficult offseason: Luke Ferrara transferred to the Nottingham Panthers, Brock Trotter bailed out on his move to the Skydome Arena in the eleventh hour, and C.J. Motte returned home with the Iowa Wild.
As a result, the West Midlands outfit found itself in a state of flux. They were credible darkhorse candidates to win silverware before the pandemic struck, but fell back into the bottom half after the Elite League’s resumption.
David Broll’s retirement was a significant factor in Coventry’s decline last season. His absence cost the Blaze an import and left his former teammates without a major portion of physicality. Even so, they soldiered on, qualified for the postseason, and took the Belfast Giants all the way in the quarter-finals.
Then, as mentioned, Coventry lost their all-star sniper and American Hockey League-quality netminder, crashing fan confidence in the process.
But you wouldn’t know it based on their fast start to the new season. The Blaze were excellent on the opening weekend, winning back-to-back to set pulses racing on both sides of the ring road.
“Yeah, it was a gutsy effort,” Stewart said of his side’s comeback win over the Manchester Storm on Saturday [10 September]. “I feel like a broken record: every time we come here [to Altrincham], especially when we’ve got a new group, I try to warn them about what it’s like but I don’t think players understand how little time they will have on the puck until they play in this rink.
“We certainly weren’t at our best, defending two five-on-threes in the first period doesn’t put you in a good spot, but we came back in the second, found a way to tie it, and it was just back and forth from there. It was a stressful game, that’s for sure.”
Coventry started slowly against the Storm but made amends after the first break thanks to standout performances from Colton Yellow Horn, Kim Tallberg, and Radek Veselý.
Johnny Curran applied the finishing touches to the travelling side’s win, converting Brady Norrish’s line-breaking pass into the golden goal.
Result | #EIHL @Mcr_Storm 4-5 OT @covblazehockey pic.twitter.com/U0ebn1rQiX
— Premier Sports Elite League | #EIHL (@officialEIHL) September 10, 2022
Before the puck dropped in Manchester, there were concerns that the Blaze would struggle to find twine after Ferrara’s exit. Thus far, their new signings have risen the challenge.
Paavo Hölsä key to Coventry’s impressive start to the season
Motte’s departure was also a major talking point in preseason, not least because he felt irreplaceable. Again, those fears appear to be unfounded: Paavo Hölsä was poised on his Elite League debut and is on the right path to becoming beloved in Coventry.
Despite conceding four on his first start for the club, the flying Finn holds a .915 save percentage and has already built impressive chemistry with his blueline. He is an ambitious puck-player, who repeatedly ventured beyond his crease in Coventry’s 2-1 win over the Panthers on Sunday [11 September].
“He’s very agile and competes for every puck,” Stewart said of his new netminder. “He’s a hard-working guy that is keen to keep getting better. He wanted the challenge of playing more games and being our go-to guy, and we are delighted to bring him in for this season.”
Hölsä made several key interventions on the way to being named player of the match at the Skydome, underscoring his potential following two successful seasons as a backup in the ICEHL. If he continues to command the defensive zone, the Blaze will find themselves in steady hands.
Coventry’s start to the season wasn’t perfect. They wobbled at various stages versus Manchester and Nottingham, but it speaks volumes about their temperament that they twice pulled through.
In other words, Stewart appears to have navigated his two biggest offseason conundrums successfully. He found players to put the puck in the net and a goalie to keep them out at the other end. Yes, it’s too soon to proclaim the Blaze contenders, pretenders, or something in between. But they deserve credit for a solid start to the campaign.
Where will the Coventry Blaze finish in the table in the 2022-23 Elite League season? Join the conversation by mentioning @BritIceHockey on Twitter.