It's been a long summer Down Under, as the AIHL has bombed through its regular season at a breakneck pace to decide which four teams will get to play for the second oldest trophy in world ice hockey.
The Goodall Cup Finals take place this weekend in Melbourne, with league regular season top finishers Melbourne Ice, the CBR Brave, joyful underdogs (and PPP's team) and the Perth Thunder hoping to raise the cup and be crowned AIHL 2016 champions this Sunday.
Oh yes, and of course, while Chowder's Melbourne Mustangs sadly didn't make it this weekend (finishing fifth in the league after a nightmare start to the season)..."our" Newcastle North Stars did.
Which means, ladies and gentlemen, that this weekend, WE ARE NEWCASTLE.
But since the entire AIHL is awesome and the North Stars, Mustangs and their fans welcomed our initial foray into hockey down under with joy and open arms (as, in fact, has the entire league)...it's time for a quick primer on all four teams.
- MELBOURNE ICE
The Ice are, to put it mildly, very, very good indeed. They have the second-best netminder in the league this season in Troy Davenport (we'll come to the best shortly) and a strong defensive lineup led by veteran Paul Baranzelli, but it's up front this team are most terrifying. They can score from literally anywhere, with the creative playmaking of Chris Yule and Joey Hughes paired with the sheer killer-instinct of the "Great Dane" Lasse Lassen, who has 27 goals this season and the all-around excellence of Ice legend Jason Baclig the headliners at the top of their roster. As the home team at the OBG Arena, they'll be very confident of once again taking the title. They'll have to go through the CBR Brave to get to the final on the Saturday, mind you...and that's no easy task at all. The Ice have, however, won 19 games of the 28 they've played this season, scoring 127 goals while conceding only 71 and went on a ridiculous winning-streak to start the year, so they are probably going into the finals as favourites.
2. PERTH THUNDER
The Western Australians (and PPP's team) were second in the regular season and are another team who are built as a powerhouse. They have the strongest goalie in the league (and the only one better than Davenport) in the immense performances of Thomas Heemskerk, while their defence is quietly the second-best in the AIHL, conceding only 73 goals this season-impressive in a high-scoring league. They have, however, "only" scored 95, with two-thirds of those coming from their top line of Ben Breault, Jessyko Bernard and Michael Dorr, which means that they will hope to spread the scoring and offensive threat this weekend in order to pose the most problems to the opposition-players like New Zealand captain Andrew Cox, who is more than capable of a big offensive performance when needed. The Thunder will rely on their proven formula of defensive strength and timely goals once again this weekend.
3. NEWCASTLE NORTH STARS
Chowder's team have the top scorer in the AIHL in the electric Connor McLaughlin (35 goals) and have scored 105 goals this season. Like the Thunder, over half of them have come from the top line of McLaughlin, Scott Swiston and Josh Harris, which means that these three will need to be firing once again this weekend. Defensively, though, they have real quality going forward, with Rob Malloy and Brandon Greenside both among the best two-way defensemen in the league. Goalie Dayne Davis hasn't quite reached the level of Heemskerk and Davenport this season, but he's more than good enough at this level and, as defending champions, the North Stars will be more than motivated as they go for a repeat title.
4. CBR BRAVE
The AIHL's newest team and arguably its best story (saved from death in around three weeks only two years ago, now competing for a title, the Brave are another team who boast strength on defence in captain and veteran Mark Rummukainen - but again, it's up front where the real threat comes in all-time AIHL single-season goal record holder Geordie Wudrick, all-time Brave points leader power forward Stephen Blunden and the most lethal double act in the AIHL in twins Casey and Tyler Kubara. Offensive punch from the blueline, meanwhile, is provided by Czech star Jan Safar.
The Brave are a team who can score - in fact with 129 goals they've even outscored the Melbourne Ice...but they've also conceded 117, which means that you can expect any game the Brave are involved in to be a shootout. Facing the Melbourne Ice could be a dream matchup for fans of goals - maybe not so much for fans of tight-checking, defensive hockey. They are probably the outsiders (just) but are more than capable of pulling off a shock this weekend.
In summary - the AIHL Finals are between four beautifully matched teams, all with a chance of winning it. We'd like to wish all four the best of luck.
But of course, there's only one team we're backing.
Go North Stars. We. Are. Newcastle.
Bring it home, lads.