EIHL: Play-off race goes to the wire
The league title race is over, the conferences have been won '“ now it's all about the play-offs.
But who will go head to head in the quarter-finals has yet to be fully resolved.
Seven of the eight places have been claimed, leaving Braehead Clan and Coventry Blaze in the ‘who blinks first’ contest for the last slot – and there will be no time to prepare either as the top eight go straight into knockout action with places in the finals weekend in Nottingham the ultimate prize.
It’s showtime for the show men – and the stage is set for a fascinating last weekend of the regular season.
Cardiff Devils get to wrap up the league campaign with a home double header against Belfast Giants, one of their main title rivals, and MK Lightning whose debut EIHL campaign is already done and dusted.
The Welsh side were worthy champions. On and off the ice, they set the bar for the rest to aspire to – and after completing back to back titles, they’ll be keen to add the play-off trophy to their roll of honour.
Sheffield Steelers may have gatecrashed the party with a 4-3 win in Wales, but that was as close as Paul Thomson’s side got to the title.
Steelers are stuck in fifth place, entangled in a tightly knit challenging pack, and the final positions won’t be fully resolved until the last lights have been switched off this weekend.
Barring any major collapse, Manchester Storm look set to claim the runners-up slot.
Ryan Finnerty steered his side to a 4-3 shoot out victory over Nottingham Panthers, and the win was all the better as news emerged they’d also clinched a first Patton Conference title.
It was a dramatic night as Storm pulled their netminder to get the game-tying goal from Scott Pitt with 40 seconds left to play, and when overtime failed to produce a result, it was on to penalties where Matt Beca and Dane Byers found the net.
Storm went into the game on the back of a 5-2 loss to main conference challengers, Guildford Flames, who have enjoyed an excellent first season on the top flight.
The southern side had to take maximum points from the weekend and duly hit Storm with everything bar the kitchen sink – shots on goal of `18-4 for the second period underlines how much went into this win.
But they couldn’t keep that momentum going, losing 3-1 to Coventry Blaze – a result which ended their conference title hopes, and took the Midlanders’ play-off lifeline to the wire.
They are locked in a winner-takes-all battle with Braehead for the eighth and final qualifying spot.
One point separates the sides going into the final weekend, and Guildford could be king makers as they face both sides back to back.
Clan’s big weekend win was a 4-3 victory over Nottingham Panthers; Craig Peacock’s last minute powerplay securing two precious points.
He struck again the next night to set Clan en route to a 6-1 win over a rudderless Edinburgh Capitals whose season ended months ago.
It’s been a pitiful season for the Edinburgh side.
The switch to Russian led hockey didn’t work, and the shell of a team that was left to carry the team across the finishing line deserves much more help off the ice.
A tip of the hat to the players and fans who saw it through to the very end, but the club needs a complete shake-up from top to bottom if it is to be a credible player in the EIHL.
It cannot endure a repeat of this season.