Garry Dore believes the Newcastle Northstars are shaping as genuine title contenders in 2018 but sees this double-header weekend at Hunter Ice Skating Stadium as season defining.
The third-placed Northstars host 2014 champions the Melbourne Mustangs on Saturday and second-placed Perth Thunder on Sunday as they strive for an unprecedented seventh Australian Ice Hockey League crown.
Dore, the Newcastle co-coach and Northstars general manager, feels back-to-back victories could go a long way towards shoring up play-off positions at year’s end with just seven points separating second to last spots on the competition ladder.
“I’m very pleased where we are right now, but this weekend has such a bearing on that,” Dore said.
“If we can come away with two wins, we really go into a positive mode. Which is why it’s so important.
“We’re in third place, but we have a game in hand to second place. So I guess you can say we are equal, but they have the points and we have to get them.”
After a slow start to the campaign with a handful of players unavailable on Australian duties at the division two World Championships in The Netherlands, the Northstars have begun to build momentum by winning five of their last six encounters.
“I think we’re stepping up every week and we still have a lot of room left to improve,” Dore said.
“It’s just getting all the small things right, but our overall play is great. The way our team is growing in our systems and our energy, by the end of the season we’re definitely going to be a contender.
“If we all stay healthy and with no bad luck, I think we’ll be there right at the end.”
Czech import Tomas Landa has been in terrific touch since arriving in Newcastle with five goals and six assists.
“He [Landa] has been great,” Dore said. “We knew he was a bit of a work horse with some scoring ability, but he’s a great guy. He leads by example every time he steps on the ice.”
Dore said the hosts are expected to be full strength this round with only Jayson Chalker (knee) in doubt.
Northstars captain Robert Malloy, Robert Haselhurst, Nick Rivait and Joseph Harcharik all return fit from the league All Stars event in Adelaide last weekend.
“Everybody’s healthy,” Dore said.
Most of May was spent on the road and now the Northstars set up camp at their Warners Bay headquarters with seven of their next nine games played at home.
The Thunder return on June 23, followed by the Sydney Ice on June 24. Early next month it will be the Melbourne Ice Dogs (July 1), Adelaide Adrenaline (July 7) and the Ice (July 8).