The EIHL have confirmed the new format for the Challenge Cup. Once again the 10 teams will be split into two groups but in a change from previous years the top four will qualify for the knock out stage. Other changes include the introduction of overtime and penalties to decide the winner.
As in previous years the knockout stages will be contested over two legs with the first and second place teams having the choice of legs. In a change to what was expected the groups have also not changed from last season. The Belfast Giants remain in Group A alongside Braehead, Dundee, Edinburgh and Fife. Group B will once again include Hull who had been tipped to swap with Belfast. Fellow group B competitors will be Cardiff, Coventry, Nottingham and Sheffield.
The format for the knockout stages will be:
Group A winner (A1) v Group B fourth place (B4)
Group A second place (A2) v Group B third place (B3)
Group B winner (B1) v Group A fourth place (A4)
Group B second place (B2) v Group A third place (A3)
The winners will progress to the two-legged semi-finals where the format will be:
A1/B4 v B2/A3
B1/A4 v A2/B3
With Belfast in Group A and Hull in Group B there has been an apparent U-turn. It had been expected the two would swap over. It will be this and the inclusion of the quarterfinal that will take the spot light as it perhaps suggests the Elite League has gotten its controversial conference structure wrong.
The conference structure was introduced as a way giving teams more games against teams closer themselves and so increase away travel and decrease travel costs. The inclusion of a quarterfinal phase however somewhat negates this as the groups like the conferences are split on geographical lines, as the playoffs will be. That means that a team may need to make an extra 3 long distance trips in the cup.
Perhaps more telling though is the decision not to swap Belfast and Hull. The cup groups like the conferences were announced as being based on geographical lines. Despite this Hull have been placed in the Northern Conference alongside group A participants whilst Belfast have been placed in the Southern Conference. The turn around could suggest that more changes could be on the way.
There has been need to revamp the Challenge Cup to give it more precedents in the season but whilst these changes give more of a knockout element it is not the best way to do it. With the exception of Belfast and Hull teams will meet their fellow group members 10 times before the knockout stages and playoffs. It therefore runs a risk of meetings becoming stale with the fans.
In defence of the Elite League though the introduction of the conference system and now the new format for the Challenge Cup they are making changes and the 2012 – 13 is going to be an experimental year. But by making the U-turn on the Belfast Hull swap the League is showing that they can make more changes but they may need to make more.