Admirals in Paradice

West Auckland wins first NZIHL title

31.08.2018
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The West Auckland Admirals celebrate their first New Zealand Ice Hockey League championship in club history. Photo: Kate Harrison

After six years the Birgel Cup for the champion of the New Zealand Ice Hockey League goes back to the North Island. The West Auckland Admirals won their first championship since the league and the club were founded in 2005.

The West Auckland Admirals are one of two teams from the more populous (but less wintery) North Island and the Auckland region in the five-team league and play at Paradice Avondale in the West Auckland suburb of Avondale.

For the Admirals it’s the end of being the eternal bridesmaid. In the previous 13 years, they had reached the final three times but lost twice against the Southern Stampede and once against regional rival Botany Swarm.

Last year they lost in two games against the Stampede, 5-2 and 5-2. Not this time when they played the same opponent.

The Admirals finished a neck-and-neck race with the Stampede in second place. Both had 39 points with a 13-3 record but the Stampede had both the better head-to-head goal difference and the better overall difference and earned a bye to the best-of-three final. The Admirals had to play a semi-final game to qualify in which they beat the Dunedin Thunder 4-2.

The Stampere’s Canada-born Matt Schneider was the league’s scoring leader. After the last round the Canada-born Kiwi won the scoring race with 46 points (22+24) ahead of his U.S. teammate Mike McRae (19+27=46).

Others had to excel when the Admirals hosted the first final game but after 22 minutes it was 2-0 for the Stampede, after two periods 4-2. Clearly outshot in the first two periods, the Admirals had a successful comeback attempt in the third frame and were rewarded with two goals from two local players, Andrew Hart with his second goal of the day and Nicholas Henderson. After two minutes of overtime it was former British national team player Kevin Phillips, who will now prepare for his northern-hemisphere season with the EIHL’s Guildford Flames, who scored the game-winner after Hart’s centering pass from the end zone. It was the Admirals’ first win in a final in their fourth year of coming that far.

The final was yet open. The second and an eventual third game would be played at the Stampede in Queenstown where the Admirals had clearly lost both regular-season games and hadn’t won a single game for over four years.

However, the Admirals built on the momentum. They replied to Adam Soffer’s opening marker in the second period with Henderson’s 1-1 goal 52 seconds before the intermission. He got the puck at the red line from turnover to score the shorthanded goal top-shelf.

It didn’t take long for the Admirals to hit the back of the net again. At 1:34 of the third period Hart scored what would become the championship-clinching goal in a 2-1 win at Queenstown. Ryan Ruddle was looking for a wraparound when surrounded by two opponents behind the net but instead found Hart in front of the net.

While Hart outgrew to become the Admirals’ biggest offensive threat in the final series, two persons named Csaba Kercso-Magos were another factor in West Auckland’s mix for success.

Outshot in both final games, the 24-year-old Hungarian-turned-Kiwi saved 47 of 51 shots in the first game and 40 of 41 shots in the second game where he was named the first star of the match. While some websites claim in his player profile that he also coaches the team, the man of the same name behind the bench is actually his 64-year-old father, who hails from Gheorgheni in the Hungarian-populated Transylvania region of Romania.

The Stampede gave it all as the game came closer to the end but the 2-1 goal stayed and the Admirals celebrated their first-ever championship on the opponent’s ice and ended the reign of three consecutive titles for the Stampede and six consecutive years in which the Birgel Cup had been won by teams from the South Island.

MARTIN MERK

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