Melbourne Mustangs players celebrate after scoring in their 11-0 win over the Newcastle Northstars. (Photo: Phil Taylor Photographic/Melbourne Mustangs Facebook)

Opening weekend for any sporting league is always intriguing and the Australian Ice Hockey League (AIHL) is no different as 2023 served up plenty of talking points.

Surprise results, missing players, hits, great saves, and even the odd fight. It had everything across the seven-game opening weekend of action.

The Inner Sanctum looks at five things across the weekend’s schedule.

Lightning strikes once

The Brisbane Lightning entered the AIHL officially for the first time and came away with a split weekend 1-1 after travelling to the Central Coast and Sydney during Week 1.

Brisbane has been a competitive outfit since first hitting the ice during their exhibition games in 2022, and it looks like it will be much of the same during the 2023 season. The Lightning romped the Central Coast Rhinos to the tune of 17-0 on the opening day of the season, then travelled to Sydney where they pushed the Ice Dogs in an 8-5 loss.

Led by Jordan McTaggart with 8 points (five goals, three assists) from the two games played, they were able to grab an important road win and really send a message to the rest of the AIHL that this expansion team isn’t here to make up the numbers.

Newcastle Northstars head coach Kevin Noble talks to his players. (Photo: Phil Taylor Photographic/Melbourne Mustangs Facebook)

Don’t hit the panic button

There were a few eyebrow-raising results across the first lot of games in the AIHL which included a 17-0 and 11-0 scoreline from two games that were played. While the results on paper may look like a blowout and have many thinking that it could be a long season ahead for some clubs, with players away on Australian national team duties and imports yet to suit up.

Newcastle Northstars gave up 19 goals against the Melbourne Mustangs and Melbourne Ice during their trip to Victoria, yet are without Charlie Smart, Ethan Hawes, Wehebe Darge, Beau Taylor and John Kennedy, who are away at World Championships and all automatic starts. Along with these missing stars, three imports are due to arrive and local talents such as Riley Tonks will be available for selection soon.

It’s a feeling out stage early in the season and not time to ring the alarm bells.

Turnstiles are clicking again

One of the most positive signs during the opening weekend of AIHL action was seeing some really healthy crowds at the majority of games, which is something that has lacked since coming out of COVID during the 2022 season.

Saturday night saw a near sell-out at O’Brien Icehouse Arena in Melbourne as the Mustangs and Northstars battled it out. The Battle of Sydney between the Bears and Ice Dogs also drew a strong contingent of supporters that added a big finals like atmosphere to the contest.

On the Central Coast, the Rhinos had a great turnout of home support, and in Perth, the Thunder faithful were once again getting right behind their team as they returned to the competition.

Positive vibes are the theme in the AIHL this season and it looks like the big crowds are back.

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Cellar dwellers have signs of life

Finishing last and second from the bottom respectively the Melbourne Ice and Sydney Ice Dogs were coming into the season looking to make a positive impact and give their supporters some hope for 2023.

Both clubs grabbed wins in the opening weekend with the Ice beating 2022 Goodall Cup finalists Northstars 8-4, while the Ice Dogs picked up an 8-5 victory over the new kids on the block Brisbane Lightning.

It was important for the two clubs to come out with a competitive performance and that is what was delivered, the Ice Dogs went 1-1 across the weekend after pushing the Bears in the derby and then claimed that important result on Sunday against the Lightning.

At the foot of the standings in 2022 both clubs are looking improved this campaign.

Ben Breault celebrates with Perth Thunder teammates. (Photo: Cassandra Edwards/Perth Thunder Facebook)

Let your hockey do the talking

Perth Thunder returned to the AIHL this season with quality local Western Australian skaters mixed in with strong overseas imports, and the vibe and excitement was high ahead of the opening puck drop.

Ben Breault is player-coach this season and he didn’t waste any time in setting the tone for his charges leading from the front against the Adelaide Adrenaline in a 6-2 win. Breault led all skaters with four points after grabbing four assists setting the tone for his team and getting the Thunder season off to the perfect start.

The Thunder were Goodall Cup finalists in their last season (2019) in the AIHL and look to be a competitive roster under Breault once again.

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