ALLAN CROW on the biggest game of the season for Fife Flyers ...
THERE is no doubt the one team everyone wanted to avoid in the play-offs was Nottingham Panthers.
The league champions are in a class of their own - a team without flaws was how Sheffield coach Ryan Finnerty described them recently - and they go into this weekend’s knockout matches in impeccable form.
They’re big, strong, fast, skilful but not unstoppable as Edinburgh Capitals proved during the regular season.
So, what’s good for the Caps ...?
Having landed the toughest of the four ties, Fife Flyers now have to do what their capital rivals did during the regular season and produce a win on Saturday to give themselves the maximum opportunity of making the finals weekend in Nottingham in seven days time.
A big task? Sure, but if there’s a role suited to Flyers it is that of the underdog.
Time and again over the years they have welcomed the biggest, most expensively assembled, perfectly balanced teams to Fife Ice Arena, and time and again they’ve torn into them with determination and commitment.
Add in the intimidating atmosphere of a near capacity Kirkcaldy crowd sitting on your shoulders, and you have the perfect setting for the perfect game - ‘David and Goliath on ice’ it may be seen in some cliched quarters, but, in truth, Flyers are no mere ‘Davids’ in hockey terms.
An analysis of the form book gives it to Panthers probably with a goal or two to spare over the two legs.
But this is play-off hockey.
All it takes is one hot goalie to stand on his head, one playmaker to run the show, or one team to fly off the bench and go 100 per cent shift after shift after shift until they can give no more to deliver a result that will stand tall for years to come.
Play-offs are about hearts and mind as much as powerplays and penalty killing.
They’re the stage for the showmen to show up - and perform.
No rehearsals, no safety nets, no second chances - just 60 minutes to define your season and turn yourselves into club legends.
Flyers’ British championship winning team of 84/85 - the Plumb Line - was the benchmark against which every single Kirkcaldy roster was measured until Mark Morrison led his players to a Grand Slam just over a decade ago.
If the team led by Todd Dutiaume and Danny Stewart overturn Panthers they will raise that bar once more.
Making the play-offs was always a goal of the coaching team, but it was never the summit of their ambitions. The competitive zeal of Stewart and the strong work ethic of Dutiaume wouldn’t counter such limits. It just isn’t part of their hockey DNA.
If anything, that attitude was summed up by Dutiaume as he talked about forcing himself back on to the ice last weekend after taking the full force of a slapshot. Aware there are finite games left in his playing career, the self-confessed ‘old man of the team,’ was damned if it was going to end sitting alone in the locker room listening to a capacity crowd roaring at every goalmouth chance. Instead he came back out on one leg, and scored a crucial goal against Braehead. Come playoffs, you don’t get sick lines from the doc. Pain barriers are there to be skated through.
Just ask Casey Haines, the captain and playmaker who sits at the very heart of this team, and who, against Braehead, buzzed for 60 minutes to the point he thought he’d pass out.
That level of commitment energised the entire bench as Flyers delivered three huge performances in a row. That level of intensity and commitment is needed once again for Flyers to add a fourth on Saturday night, and let’s be honest - everything hinges on the home tie.
This is the stage for the lines to work like never before, and for the big guns to stand up and stand out - from Bryan Pitton in goal to Jason Pitton free from suspension and leading the line.
Forget the 10-2 defeat at the hands of Nottingham when they called into town a few weeks ago - it’s irrelevant.
Flyers knew the scale of the challenge ahead of them but on home ice, with a 2500 crowd behind them, they are more than capable of delivering a result that will send bus loads of fans down the M6 in great heart for Sunday’s return, and send every single Fife fan into summer with a smile on their faces ... and knowing that season three in the EIHL brims with great potential.
EIHL PLAY-OFFS Saturday - Coventry v Sheffield; Braehead v Cardiff; Belfast v Edinburgh; Fife v Nottingham
Sunday - Nottingham v Fife (4.00 p.m.); Cardiff v Braehead; Sheffield v Coventry; Edinburgh v Belfast.
>> For live updates & comment on the game and post-match press briefings from the dressing-room, follow @fifefreepressed on Twitter
>> Reports online over the weekend at our website www.fifetoday.co.uk
>> Full analysis of play-offs plus interviews & reaction in next wewek’s Fife Free Press