Fife Flyers are just one step from completing their remarkable march to the championship play-offs.
One more gamee, one more win and it’s mission accomplished.
Their dogged determination to grab a top eight spot was underlined by Saturday’s thrilling, nerve-shredding 5-4 sudden death penalty shot victory over Braehead Clan in front of a capacity 3500 crowd.
Now they have to do it again tonight (Sunday) when Clan come to Fife Ice Arena on the very last day of the regular season.
Below outright victory lies a plethora of permutations which could have fans and officials working overtime to determine which team - Cardiff, Coventry, Hull or Fife - misses out on the play-offs.
Many of them actually favour Flyers, but for head coach Todd Dutiaume, the issue is clear cut.
‘‘Win - simply, that’s it,’’ he said. ‘‘If we do that we are through. If not so much else can happen so we’ll be telling the guys to forget everything and approach this as a game to win.’’
Dutiaume was one of the calmest men within a jam-packed Braehead Arena as he watched Flyers go to the wire again and come back with full points; the absolute masters of playing within a pressurised environment...
Before the rink opened and the preparations began, he was relaxing in Costa with a coffee while his players toured the shopping centre, and afterwards, deep in the arena’s labyrinth of corridors and dressing-rooms, he could reflect on a job done with remarkably few nerves.
Flyers were 3-0 up and cruising in the second period after taking their chances with clinical precision - Danny Stewart, Kyle Haines and Stephen Gun the marksmen - and were ten seconds away from the second buzzer of holding that clean sheet, and a significant psychological edge, when Clan grabbed a lifeline.
Mario Laroque’s shot from the right point was completely screened, and Lee Esders’ tip past outstanding netminder Kevin Regan gave the Braehead a chance to seize the momentum. And they did.
We go in 3-0 up it changes things,’’ said Dutiaume. ‘‘We’d killed well during the game up until that point. so to let a goal through in final seconds gave them some life. We weren’t down - but we had to get back to work.’’
It was also a vivid example of the lightning speed with which the momentum of a hockey game can be grabbed from a team.
The frustration that was starting to set in among the noisy home crowd was jettisoned and they nailed Flyers with three goals in a five-minute blitz early in the third period - Neil Trimm and Matt Towe made it 3-3, prompting an immediate time out from Fife, but it didn’t work - Smith firing home a thundering slapshot for 4-3 at 47:08 on the PP as the shifting momentum threatened to became a sea change.
Like a boxer caught on the ropes, Fife had to avoid the KO punch - a fifth goal - that would have sunk their tightrope season there and then.
Shift by shift they found new strength, and their case was helped by Clan’s enforcer Chris Frank pressing the self-destruct button with one of the most selfish penalties of the season. He’d already clashed with Derek Roehl when his slash broke the Flyers’ stick in half. Handed a slashing minor, Frank ranted at referee Scott Dalgleish, taking a ten-minute misconduct and then a game for his futile efforts.
Within minutes Fulton wriggled free of the defence and went for goal only to be denied by netminder Kyle Jones, but with the clock edging to the final two minutes, the puck was thrown into the crease, Roehl piled in and he, the rubber, the goalie and the nets all slid into a heap.
The ref had no hesitation awarding the goal. The home fans protested the goals were off. Significantly, their team did not beyond a half-hearted shrug of the shoulders.
It came just as Fife were about to gamble.
Dutiaume explained: Going 4-3 down was tough, but when we got back we had things in place. We knew exactly when we were going to pull Kevin, and he almost came off - we actually held him back. He was going to go around 1:30 and because we had no time outs left it had to be during play, but then we got the goal and the place erupted.’’
Overtime produced no winner, and, once again, Fife’s penalty masters - Regan and Luckacevic - delivered in the shoot-out.
‘‘The result probably pleased both teams,’’ said Dutiaume. ‘‘It gave us the two big, crucial points, and for Braehead it secured Nottingham in the play-offs.’’
The win also allowed the coach to reflect on the fundamental change in the team - from one that struggled to win games to one that seems oblivious to the pressures of winning in sudden death, coming from behind or facing up to, and out-performing, the biggest teams around.
‘‘A few months ago if they’d pumped four past us like that it would have been game over. The pressure would have had a very different outcome - not now.
‘‘There was no panic at all on the bench, no-one went off and did their own thing. We just found ways to win the game, and we’ve been doing that every weekend for some time.
‘‘That’s two huge wins on the road back to back - Dundee and now Braehead, places where we have struggled. That’s a huge achievement for the guys.’’
The entire season now comes down to Sunday’s showdown against Clan.
There is every chance the game could attract a capacity crowd at FIA, setting the stage for an epic finale.
While the players’ focus will be solely the ice pad, for fans there will be many anxious glances for updates from the games involving the rest of the play-off pack - Coventry, Cardiff and Hull.
Cardiff and Coventry go head to head with a 5.15 p.m. face-off while Hull host Sheffield at 6.00 p.m.
Flyers start at 6:30 so will have knowledge of how they are faring, but with one team losing out come the final buzzer, the coaching team will be keen to limit distractions.
>> To study all the possible permutations, read: http://chasingthedragons.wordpress.com/2014/03/22/day-of-destiny-the-complete-guide-to-the-eihls-final-day-frenzy/
>> Tonight’s showdown match will be live Tweeted by the Press team - follow @fifefreepressed and @mattelder_FFP for up to the minute news plus immediate post-game reaction from the dressing-room.
>> Tweet your match verdicts to @mattelder_FFP