Fife Flyers head coach Todd Dutiaume has hailed the role played by club directors in helping him turn a frustrating season into one that could deliver silverware.
With nine games left, Flyers are firmly on course to make the play-offs for the fourth year running, while they are also major contenders in the race for the Gardiner Conference title.
Flyers stunning 5-1 victory in Braehaed Arena on Saturday put the Kirkcaldy side four points clear at the top conference with just two games left to play, while another big win over EIHL leaders Cardiff Devils last night (Thursday) made it 10 wins from 13.
The current form is a far cry from the troubles of early season when the long-serving head coach came under pressure as his Flyers side struggled for consistency.
“It’s starting to come together at right time,” Dutiaume told the Press.
“There’s always an ebb and flow to a season and much is made about teams injuries but we went through all that at start of season - and it was hard.
“That stretch in October and November was tough, but I was backed by my directors.
“They allowed me to keep an extra guy, so I can’t say I haven’t been given the tools, and we’re reaping the benefits of it right now.
“I was getting pushed to my limits and I kept backing into my rock, which was my directors.
“They never flinched, and they gave me that boot up the backside so that instead of focusing on the criticism, we focused on ourselves as a team and we came through it.”
While directors kept faith with Dutiaume, the coach did the same with his players, bringing in Nico Sacchetti as an extra import rather than let anyone go.
“Only on a couple of performances have I been publicly critical of their effort,” he said. “For the most part, I’ve stuck up for these guys.
“You know the group you have and you believe in them.
“They needed a catalyst - and that was Nico - but he hasn’t gone out and single-handedly done that himself.
“A lot of guys have opened up. It allowed us to put Dingle on the wing which has energised another line, and opened him up offensively as well.
“We’ve also tightened up at the back - we’re not letting so many weak goals in.
“Lack of offence puts pressure on a defence. In a one goal game, a weak goal can feel like it’s the worst thing in the world.
“But if you score five goals, and let a soft one in, that goal three months ago when our offence wasn’t firing on all cylinders was the defining moment of the hockey game. Whereas now, it’s just a thing that happened.”
From a seemingly lost cause a month ago - at one point Braehead were just two points behind with seven games in hand - Flyers are now leading a three-horse race for the conference title.
While Flyers have played more games, the maximum possible points tally for each club is the same - 43 points - but with Braehead and Dundee Stars still to meet only one of them can reach that total.
It means that if Flyers can win their two remaining conference games, in Edinburgh on Sunday and in Manchester on March 6, the conference will effectively become a two-horse race, and either Braehead or Dundee will need to win all their games to prevent the title coming to Kirkcaldy for the first time.
Dutaiume, however, is keeping his feet on the ground.
“There’s a helluva lot of hockey left to play for all teams,” he said. “I’ve said from that start that we want to take care of ourselves first and foremost.
“We got the first win we needed - a tough one in Braehead - but we’ve now got to go into Edinburgh, where they are dangerous, and a Manchester team that’s been hot of late.
“We haven’t won anything yet and we don’t want to talk about silverware.
“You can drive yourself nuts looking at all the permutations but it’s important these guys stay focused and try to win every game.”
Edinburgh’s recent collapse means they are mathematically out of the play-offs but Dutiaume has warned his players not to take them lightly on Sunday.
“They are playing strictly on pride and that’s dangerous,” he said. “They are not going to go through the rest of season defeated - they just won’t.”