Ice hockey play-offs: No time to skate on the edges of a game

Casey Haines fires the puck. Fife Flyers v Nottingham Panthers. March 2, 2013. Pic: Steve Gunn, shotbyagunn photography
Casey Haines fires the puck. Fife Flyers v Nottingham Panthers. March 2, 2013. Pic: Steve Gunn, shotbyagunn photography

Allan Crow on Fife Flyers big weekend as they bid for post-season competition berth

Amid endless permutations only one is true. Two will lose out and their season will end abruptly.

This is ice hockey’s equivalent of a photo-finish, and one that will take more than a cursory glance to check the finishing order.

Some basic stats as another hockey weekend looms on the horizon.

Cardiff Devils sit fifth with 47 points but are on a four-loss streak. Tenth side Hull are on 39 points and three wins - and the third of those victories, over Fife last Sunday, also took them to the top of the Gardiner Conference. If they stay there and win it then they would automatically replace the side in the eighth play-off spot, which, as it stands, would be Braehead.

Clan’s league run consists of six losses - the worst of the contenders - and they trail Fife and Edinburgh by two points.

But just when you start to question the Glasgow side’s play-off hopes, you glance back down the fixtures to be played, see Fife have three out of four on the road and then tear up your sheet of jottings and doodles and go say a prayer to the patron saint of road trips for some divine intervention. Or a goal or two, at least.

The one team Braehead - and indeed all the play-off contenders - want on the road right now is Fife whose away form has been, let’s be honest, just rank.

Sunday’s defeat in Hull concluded two complete EIHL seasons without a a single victory south of the border. Not one.

While their debut season was difficult, they have had chance after chance to win away from Fife Ice Arena this time round, and failed to take one of them.

Those early season one-goal defeats now seem like distant memories. Hopes of a breakthrough just didn’t materialise and if they fail to make the play-offs they ought to start watching DVDs of those games to learn some painful lessons.

Irrespective of whether the bus takes them to the Big Blue Tent in Cardiff or Braehead along the M8, Flyers simply must deliver at least one win to abslutely secure entry to the play-offs.

So, it’s time to step up - and deliver.

Look at how ruthless Nottingham were on Saturday. Flyers need to follow their lead.

All that mattered to Panthers was keeping their own momentum going. Their eye is on the prize and if a team has to be swatted aside, their players roughed up and shoved around and goals scored long after the score ceases to matter, then so be it.

Can Flyers succeed?

In one word - yes, albeit, it’s a qualified thumbs-up. With the fingers of my other hand crossed for extra good luck.

Flyers are as close to making the final eight as they are exiting through the trap door. There is no leeway. A trapeze artist stepping on to a high wire probably has more margin for error right now,

Flyers have four games left to decide how, and when, their season ends.

There is no doubt they are more than capable of beating any of their Scottish rivals, but on the flipside they have also blown out quite spectacularly against Stars, Caps and Clan at various times this season. Nights when expectations ran high just crash landed with some pretty ropey performances.

You can analyse the teams line by line, player by player, goalie by goalie and coach by coach, but maybe it all comes down to heart. The desire to win.

Play-offs are where the big game players have to show up.

This is when team leaders make their presence known on the bench, on the ice, on the bus, in the room.

This is also when you have to look at every player on your line and make sure they are not playing on the edges of the game, but right beside you from the moment the puck drops.

No more holding back going into the corner, no more skirting round the sides of the net - get in and do the dirty work. Put your body on the line to block a shot knowing it’ll hurt like hell. Strap up any injured body parts and skate through the fog of exhaustion. That’s what hockey players do come Spring. The golf clubs and cold beer will be all the more enjoyable if they are delayed by a few weeks.

Play-offs electrify the most tired minds and inject fresh energy into the weariest of legs.

And after all the blood, sweat and tears of the past five months, it’d be a sin, absolute sin, to miss out now - an omission that would nag all summer long.

No player likes to look back and think about what might have been.

The solution is in their own hands.

Go to Dundee this Sunday.

And win.