Who holds their nerve - the race for the play-offs

ice hockey'puck
ice hockey'puck

At this time of the season, hockey players lay it on the line every night. T.

They strap up and skate through the pain barrier in pursuit of play-off success. Recovery and rehab are for the summer months.

From Casey Haines’ broken foot to Steven King icing with a broken jaw protected only by a full visor to Todd Dutiaume scoring a goal with a broken kneecap, there are numerous examples down the years of guys defying injury, and a season of physical and mental fatigue to shoot for the final piece of silverware.

Behind those grizzly play-off beards many teeth are gritted in sheer defiance of the pain.

The regular season ends on March 22, but not one single injured, strapped-up player, let alone the healthy ones, wants that to be their final shift.

Missing out on the play-offs stubbornly sticks with them all summer long; a sense of failure that is hard to shake off. Call it the play-off blues, but hockey players who miss out can never fully enjoy the sunshine break as much as their buddies who got to the finals weekend.

But that’s the reality facing either Fife, Edinburgh, Hull or Coventry.

Three will go into the play-offs, the other will see the shutters pulled down abruptly and the 2014-15 season will be over.

The shifting sands beneath all the contenders make predictions tougher than normal.

All are vulnerable, but all also have good cases to make. Fife have points in the bag. Hull have games in hand. Coventry have momentum. Caps have a never-say-die spirit that can deliver wins from the toughest of games.

The criss-cross schedules add another layer of possibilities - of the four teams only Fife and Coventry don’t go head to head. By contrast Blaze and Hull meet three times, including one on the final day of the season.

The cliche ‘the business end of the season’ really doesn’t capture the drama and doubt which laces every single period of hockey in March.

It’s more akin to trying to walk a tightrope in your skates while rink staff roll up the safety net and store it under the seats.

Every game has ‘’must win’’ stamped through it like the letters on a stick of rock. With precious little time to recover any points dropped, teams have to go 60 minutes per night and deliver the wins necessary to turn the heat on their rivals.

What happens on other ice pads around the country cannot be of any concern. You stand or fall on your own results first and foremost.

As it stands, Fife sit sixth with 44 points from 47 games, tied with Coventry who have one match in hand.

The Blaze have toiled badly all season - if the EIHL had an ‘underachiever of the year’ award it’d go to the Midlands outfit unless Dundee cared to contest the honour - but somewhere, somehow, they’ve found slivers of form at the right time and started to put together a run of results.

Given their pedigree it would be an acute embarrassment to miss out on the post-season action. It looked a distinct possibility five or six weeks ago, but the club has generated some momentum - probably enough to keep them going to the finish line.

Whether it can find another gear to avoid a first round exit is another matter altogether.

But if Blaze book one of the eight spots, that then throws the spotlight back on to three others, and that’s where it starts to get interesting.

In terms of vulnerability, Fife and Hull are in the frame.

Flyers’ season has been one of two steps forward, one step back - a good team that could be great has yet to put together the run of wins needed to really cement their play-off berth.

When they have been good they have thrilled, but when they’ve come up short, points have been needlessly frittered away.

Can they make the play-offs? Absolutely. But will they?.

I certainly wouldn’t bet against them doing it - if there is a hard way to do things then Fife will always take that option - but they really need to get this wrapped up before that last-day home game against Braehead Clan, a team that has had their number for most of the season.

It could be a title decider as well as an eleventh hour play-off bid - a compelling piece of sporting theatre in front of a packed arena, perhaps, but that’s not a scenario the coaching team would pick in a bid to get into the post-season games.

They need to nail it down with a sweep of points against Hull, Dundee (twice) and Belfast to avoid betting all against their nemesis from Renfrew.

They need to go game by game with a very clear focus on delivering a rock-solid performance every single night. They have very little margin of error, so the notion of taking the night off - individually or collectively - is simply not an option. If they want the play-offs they have to graft to get there. It’s as simple as that.

Stingrays are tenacious opposition. A as a club they work hard, skate all night, and often punch above their weight, but recent results seem to have sucked some of the wind from their sails.

The five games in hand they held ought to have been a wrecking ball that scattered the play-off hopefuls like tenpins.

Now they are down to three on Fife, two on Coventry, with no ground gained, and they face a tricky run-in.

If it comes down to them or Fife, then the men from Humberside might find themselves on the wrong end of the red line which separates the qualifiers from the eliminated.

Right now, Edinburgh are ninth on the outside looking in. They trail Hull by two points with a game more played. And yet …

The play-offs have always eluded Caps, but could this be the season that changes?

They’ve taken some huge scalps this year, played some smashing hockey, and proved to be the most cussedly difficult of opponents.

They have an uncanny knack of bouncing off the ropes and hitting you with a sucker punch goal which energises their entire bench faster than you can change lines - and once they find that momentum they have no fears going for the jugular.

Caps are probably the one team no-one wants as play-off opponents - a team with nothing to lose, everything to gain, and a dressing-room spirit that would probably thrive on finally making the post-season party.

From a Scottish perspective it would be fantastic to see three teams in the last eight; Braehead with genuine aspirations of making the finals weekend, and Fife and Edinburgh with everything to shoot for, and more than capable of joining them.

It all comes down to who holds their nerve from here on ...