Fife Flyers 4 Coventry Blaze 7
At this pivotal stage of the season, a Fife Flyers side with play-off aspirations cannot afford to lose two points at home to 10th placed Coventry Blaze ... but nor can they afford to play this short-handed.
With four players already missing, a fifth dropping out during the game, and a sixth playing through the pain barrier, this was a tough night for the banged up Kirkcaldy team.
The absence of Evan Stoflet, Scott Aarssen and Chris Wands reduced the defence to just two lines - unsustainable over 60 minutes let alone an extended run of games - albeit youngster Reece Cochrane did a splendid job on his occasional shifts.
Top scorer Paul Crowder was also a big miss up front, particularly with Chase Schaber currently playing injured, but it was the loss of Danick Gauthier early in the third period with the game locked at 4-4 that proved one blow too far.
The forward's leg took the full force of a slapshot and he had to be helped from the ice before being taken to hospital for an x-ray. His early exit was quickly followed by the loss of a fifth goal - a double setback that left an already depleted team scunnered.
Up until this point Flyers had shown enough endeavour to suggest they could take something from the game, particularly in the first period when they twice opened up a two-goal lead, but once Blaze got back on level terms, they were the team on top for the most part.
Coventry coach Danny Stewart admitted afterwards he was well aware of his former side's selection problems, and was keen to take advantage.
"We knew they were short-staffed on the back end and if we got a lot of zone time we could see a way through," he said.
"It took some time but we got there in the end."
Fife head coach Todd Dutiaume admitted that the short-bench was a factor in the team's defeat, describing Gauthier's injury as a "turning point".
"The wind just went out of our sails at that point," he said.
"With only four D at the back end, as time went on it started taking its toll.
"There were also some common errors we've faced all year, and we've tried to address our puck management.
"Coventry love to run and gun, and tonight the puck was falling on sticks and they made us pay for our mistakes."
Flyers pre-match game sheet showed a call-up for Kirkcaldy Kestrels defenceman Marty Simpson but he was denied an EIHL debut due to a registration problem which prevented him from taking his place on the bench.
The home side shook off their lack of numbers to open up a two-goal lead inside four minutes, their reward for a positive start, although they were helped by an indisciplined opening from Coventry as the visitors took three minor penalties in quick succession.
Flyers ruthlessly took advantage, scoring on consecutive five-on-three powerplays to give themselves a firm platform to build from.
Both goals were strikingly similar with Marcus Basara and Brett Bulmer both capitalising on pucks which rebounded off the backboards before shooting home.
Blaze pulled one back through Thom Flodqvist who shot past an unsighted Shane Owen as defenceman Craig Moore was bending down to pick up his stick.
Flyers quickly restored the two-goal advantage with Carlo Finucci's pass unlocking the Blaze defence for Joe Basaraba to shoot home at the back door.
Basaraba was then handed a 2+10 penalty for boarding after a collision which left Ivan Puzic down and hurt, and Blaze reduced the deficit shortly afterwards through Tim Crowder.
Flyers survived a four-on-three penalty, but no sooner had they got four skaters back when Rick Pinkston was penalised for hooking to leave the team to defend a five-on-three inside the final minute of the period.
It became a battle for survival until the buzzer, but with just six seconds left, Shawn Pauly pounced to level the scores at 3-3.
That was one of the crucial turning points in this game - another was an astonishing stop from Blaze netminder Matt Hackett who somehow stopped Basara from converting a clear chance at the back post, not once but twice, midway through period two.
When Flyers lost track of Dillon Lawrence at the net on 37.25 they were behind for the first time in the game, but a generous award of a penalty shot for a pull back on Evan Bloodoff inside the opening minute of the third period brought the hosts back level, with the forward finishing the chance beyond Hackett.
The game was now flowing from end-to-end but when Gauthier limped off, some of Flyers belief appeared to disappear with him, and within a minute Blaze had restored their one-goal advantage with Crowder firing into the net after the puck rebounded off Owen's face-mask.
From then on, the Fife performance withered with a fortunate deflection which presented Pauly with an easy tap-in for 6-4 on the 49 minute mark only serving to further crush the team's spirit.
Pauly completed his hat-trick and took the Blaze tally to seven on 53.49 as a clearly exhausted Moore was caught in possession, and Fife tumbled to seventh in the standings, just four points inside the play-off cut mark.
Flyers will need to quickly put this disappointment behind them and bounce back at Dundee Stars tomorrow, given the Taysiders are also missing bodies with head coach Omar Pacha set to come out of retirement to help fill the void.