ICE HOCKEY BLOG: The race for the play-offs

Casey Haines scores against Cardiff. Fife Flyers v Cardiff Devils, Feb 9. 2013. Pic: Steve Gunn
Casey Haines scores against Cardiff. Fife Flyers v Cardiff Devils, Feb 9. 2013. Pic: Steve Gunn
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EIHL play-offs are the business end of the season - Allan Crow on the race set to go to the wire.

Any coach looking to nail one motivational statement to the dressing-room door need only look as far as the words of the late Herb Brooks.

The man who coached USA to Olympic gold at Lake Placid in 1980 - including that legendary ‘Miracle On Ice’ game against the mighty Soviets - also led numerous NHL teams, the French national side, and is in Hockey’s Hall of Fame.

The scent of play-offs is in the air, and Brooks’ words ought to be used to fire up teams the length and breadth of the EIHL.

This is their moment.

They don’t call it the business end of the season for nothing. It’s sport minus any safety net.

Failure to qualify means an abrupt end to everything. Sticks packed away, golf clubs dusted off - and early flights home. As ruthless as any redundancy programme in business.

Make the top eight with optimum momentum, however, and suddenly the prize many value above the league title is on your radar, possibly even within your reach.

It has taken football years to understand what hockey fans have known all along - play-offs are magic.

And with just a few weeks to go, the 2012-13 play-offs remain wide open.

As I write, only three of the eight berths have been secured - Belfast, Sheffield and Nottingham - and the scrap for the last remaining five is as fascinating as it is completely unpredictable.

As of Saturday night, just 11 points separated Coventry in fourth and Braehead in eighth.

If you take Cardiff and Coventry out of the equation and assume they’ll make it, that leaves three spots to be contested by the four Scottish sides and Hull, and they are glued together between 33 and 40 points.

Some have games in hand which could prove crucial, some are on worrying losing streaks, and at least one team - Fife - just can’t win on the road.

But then you drill down and find Hull on a nine-game losing streak and Braehead - a team which has made so many changes it has the look of a man holding lots of jigsaw pieces and still trying to figure out how to start putting them together - have one win in eight.

Those stats don’t fit the definition of play-off form.

Caps, meanwhile, have won four in a row at home, while Fife have won five. Now THAT’S the kind of form coaches look for at this time of year.

The challenge they face is getting their team to peak at the right time.

February is a key month for every man behind the bench. He wants to see - and feel - the team knitting together and playing with confidence and consistency. Guys will play hurt, they probably won’t even admit to being injured at this stage of the campaign - remember Steven King fracturing his jaw and simply reaching for a full visor to lead the line when Flyers won the Grand Slam? This is their moment. They want to be here.

The grind of the regular season is almost over, and the mere sight of the play-offs will inject fresh energy into the most dog-tired of legs.

So, who’ll make it?

Short of a major collapse by Blaze or Devils, only three of the four Scottish sides will qualify, the issue is picking the one that won’t with any degree of confidence; the season-long coupon-bursting results posted by Edinburgh Capitals have seen to that.

Stars are out of the picture by one point but have three games in hand over Braehead, and how do we assess Flyers’ hopes?
They have eight games left - four home, four away.

Their home record stands comparison with every other EIHL team, but their record on the road is rank rotten.

Somewhere, and somehow, they have to win away, perhaps just once. Indeed, one road victory might just be the swing they need to secure qualification and even wreck someone else’s dreams - if so the games in Dundee (March 10), Braehead (13) and Edinburgh (17) are key.

The picture may even change once more after Sunday’s games are concluded, and coaches start pouring over all the amended permutations.

Bottom line is this play-off race will go to the wire.

This is the players’ moment.

We’ll soon know who are meant to be here.

Allan Crow

Follow @fifefreepressed for match night updates and post-game interviews on hockey night.