Todd Dutiaume hopes to cap off his most enjoyable season as Fife Flyers head coach by leading the team to the play-off finals weekend in Nottingham.
Standing in his way is old adversary Ryan Finnerty, who brings his Manchester Storm side to Fife Ice Arena on Saturday for the quarter-final first leg, before the teams meet again at Altrincham Ice Rink on Sunday in the second leg decider.
Dutiaume went head-to-head with Finnerty many times during his Braehead Clan days, with his opposite number edging the Gardiner Conference title battles, while Dutes claimed a memorable play-off quarter-final victory over his Clan side two years ago.
“There’s always been exciting times and a bit of drama with the coach we’re opposing this weekend,” Dutiaume explained.
“He ran the ‘evil empire’ over in Braehead for many years, and we had a very close rivalry. He’s proved his salt against down in Manchester winning another conference title. He’s an excellent coach and always put together excellent teams.
“We both seemed to thwart each other’s goals over the last couple of seasons and once again we find ourselves going head-to-head.
“It’s going to be two close games, but we definitely have our eye on booking our ticket to Nottingham.”
Both teams go into the match as their respective conference champions, however Storm will be considered favourites after finishing the regular season as second seeds, while Flyers dropped from third to seventh in the final standings, albeit just three points behind third place.
“In the past when we finished in this position in the league it’s been quite stressful and a hard slog,” Dutiaume said.
“This season has been an incredible amount of fun and we know what these guys are capable of. If one or two of those injuries were even just a little shorter, the final position would have been different.
“It is what it is, but overall we’ve got to be pleased with our regular season performance. I thought it was a hell of a season. Now we’re looking to get healthy and prepare ourselves for a two-legged quarter-final against Manchester.
“If we show up and play like we can, I still think we have a good chance of doing this.’’
Flyers have made the finals weekend twice since joining the Elite League, losing in the semis to Belfast Giants in 2014 and Nottingham Panthers in 2016, and Dutiaume knows what it will take to make it for a third time.
“This weekend comes down to which team wants it more,” he said. “Both teams are very closely matched, and I think we’re going to be just fine.
“We’re confident with this bunch, and anybody can say anything they want about us, we know who we are and we’re happy with that.
“We’re very proud of what we’ve accomplished and the hard work and entertainment factor they’ve brought this season has been second to none, and it was one of our most enjoyable years working here.
“Now we have another job to do, and we have all week to focus on it.”
Flyers have been running without a trio of injured players this month but only netminder Andy Iles is expected to have a chance of making the weekend, with Evan Bloodoff and Ian Young expected to miss out.
“It’s disappointing because we lost Bloods who was on pace for scoring 45 goals this season and probably would’ve led the league on goals,” Dutes added. “That’s a big loss out of anyone’s line-up.
“Ian played 35 minutes for us a game, if not more, was incredibly mobile up and down the ice, confident with the puck, and would be a big loss for any club.
“Then you go for the trifecta of your starting goaltender - who should arguably be up for goaltender of the year. These aren’t fringe players - these are mainstays in any line-up.
“I think we were guilty of our heads being down and performances had dipped for a while, although I think it’s reasonable to say that would’ve happened to almost any team.
“On the flipside, I think they’ve responded well. We’ve seen a number of guys step up and take significant amounts of ice time.
“They’ve taken it in their stride, and we went through our busiest part of the season, which we dreaded with a full team, short of three, four sometimes five imports and they still produced some good hockey.
“That’s something that will unfortunately go a little unrecognised by a lot of people, but it doesn’t go unrecognised in this office, or in the dressing room.
“These guys are a tight group and they are fighting for each other right now.
“They know what this weekend means, not only to the people who come out and pay their wages, but certainly for all the blood, sweat and tears they’ve put into their campaign this year, and they want to culminate it with a trip to Nottingham.”