This season has been a particularly tough one for the Cardiff Fire 1 team. The step up into the second tier of British Ice Hockey has brought with it a very steep learning curve. One thing that Mark Cuddihy has instilled in this team is a never say die attitude and such a great team spirit. At the beginning of the season this team seemed way out of sorts and unable to cope with the speed, skill and physicality of their opponents, but bit by bit, and week by week this team has improved and got to grips with what is needed to hang in there with these teams. Not only have this team had to deal with the huge step up in class but they also had a horrific injury list at the beginning of the season often being short benched.
From the outset, Cardiff Fire will have targeted the games with Invicta Dynamos as ones where their best chance of taking points from. And as the season has progressed their defence has got better and better and with the signing of Jordan Lawday, they had found a fantastic netminder to compliment all the hard work that the ‘D’ lines had been doing. It is no coincidence that as the season has progressed, so have the losing margins got smaller and over the last few weeks there have been signs that a victory could be on the cards.
On Saturday night on home ice, the Cardiff Fire finally took their first points in NIHL 1. Ok, some would say that the Fire would have been looking to take all the points from this game but a point was well earned. The team fought back on three separate occasions to take this game into overtime. Unfortunately, the Fire couldn’t get the game-winning goal and it was the opponent who took home the extra point.
What this game showed everybody was how much of a galvanised team unit the Cardiff Fire really is. One such moment that highlighted this was when young Elis Sheppard stepped forward and dropped the gloves after Brandon Webster put a hit on a Fire teammate. Elis landed several great blows and put Webster on the ice. This was a message to the Invicta team that the Fire would not be bullied.
Although they would have been looking for two points the Fire team must have been buoyed by taking a point for the first time this season.
If on Saturday night the Fire were hoping to take the points, on Sunday night I would guess most would have been hoping to keep the score down against a Swindon Wildcats side boasting current Cardiff Devils player Toms Rutkis and Chris ‘CJ’ Jones from last seasons Devils along with Birbraer and Hill, both also former Devils. The Wildcats were also sitting third in the league and still harbouring hopes of catching Basingstoke and Peterborough at the top of the league.
To say that the Cardiff Fire battled for everything and gave 120 percent in this game was an understatement. To a man, the Fire team just dug in and frustrated Swindon. The defence on the night was massive and a special shout out must go to Sam Smith. At 16 years of age, he handles himself magnificently and encapsulates what the Fire are about, which is developing and bringing young talented hockey players through.
After only 1 minute 18 of the first frame, Swindon took the lead and I, probably like many others thought this could and would be a long night for the Fire. However, the early goal did little to dampen the team spirit and the battling qualities of this side were there for all to see. They fought for every loose puck and threw bodies in front of shots to keep themselves in with a shout. the determination, graft and hard work were rewarded when just before the end of the period Josh Haslam scored his second goal in two nights with assists going to David Manning and young Sam Smith.
There seemed to be a different atmosphere in IAW last night to any of the other games I have been to this year. Even though the opposition had all the big names and the big reputation, you could sense a belief amongst the fans and the players that this could be a special night.
The second period was a very tight affair and despite chances at either end, the period ended scorelessly. Jordan Lawday was again displaying a masterclass in between the pipes stopping shot after shot. I’m certain it won’t be long before some Elite league attention comes his way. Although Swindon again dominated the period it was the Fires tenacity that kept them holding on and sniffing some more points.
The third period started much the same with the Wildcats piling on the pressure and the class of players like Rutkis and Jones and the presence of Birbraer showing but again the Fire team would not take a step backwards and at 44 minutes and 21 seconds the unbelievable happened and the home side took the lead. The determination paid off with the ever-busy Sam Bryant scoring with assists from Jordan Powell and Josh Haslam. The cheers for this goal were immense and everyone was so proud of the way this team had performed on the night. This seemed to spur the title chasers into another gear and the Fire had to put up with an onslaught on their net. In less than four minutes the Wildcats had levelled things up and this then meant that most in the arena were just praying that the tiring home side could hold out and take the game into overtime and at least take the point they so richly deserved.
In a last ten minutes that seemed to last forever they did hold out and this team had done it and gained back to back points.
It was a testament to Sam Smith that he was entrusted with the first shift in overtime. For such a young guy, he seemed to take everything in his stride. In overtime, Swindon continued applying the pressure with Cardiff attempting to break out and score. Unfortunately for the home side, the ref made a call of too many men and with the extra skater, it didn’t take long for the game-winning goal to come from Max Birbraer with a shot just inside the blue line.
Man of the match on the night was Jordan Lawday who faced an incredible 79 shots with a save percentage of 96.2. Although Lawday rightly took the beers, players such as Bryant and Haslam were very unlucky not to get the nod. Haslam with a goal and an assist and Bryant with a goal and was everywhere on the ice.
On a personal note, I was so happy for the guys. I have attended several matches this season and can’t quite believe how far this group of players have come. They have put up with short benches, injuries and some very debateable official calls throughout the season but have continued to turn up week after week with a fantastic attitude and I’m sure most people who follow NIHL 1 will have been quietly pleased to see the Fire team get some rewards for all their hard work.
I have been lucky enough to interview several Fire players this year and also head Coach Mark Cuddihy, and all commented how hard the league was but all were certain that they would keep going and keep fighting until the end. I hope now that the season can bring a couple more points and that this Fire team is kept together as much as possible as I believe the amount of young talent coming through the Fire 2 team also will only improve this side even further in years to come. One such player is Eliot Murdoch, who has already iced for Fire 1 and I’m sure he will soon come through into the Fire 1 side on a more permanent basis.
Everyone at Y-Ddraig would like to say a big congratulations to all the people involved with Cardiff Fire for a fantastic weekend and wish you luck for the rest of the season.