Play-offs - one weekend to shoot for finals

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The sands of time are trickling fast for the EIHL’s play-off hopefuls.

Four of the eight quarter-finalists will fall by the wayside this weekend - their hopes and dreams met by a door slamming shut.

All eight want to make Nottingham for play-off finals weekend on April 4-5. Only four can make reservations.

Rewind exactly 12 months and Fife Flyers stood on the cusp of completing that journey on the back of a quite remarkable winning streak.

They’re back in the play-offs for a second successive season - an achievement that shouldn’t be overlooked when reflecting on a season filled with one too many flatlining performances.

This time round they go head to head with Sheffield Steelers.

To eliminate the newly crowned league champions would be a major upset. This is a match up between first and eighth; a team that has peaked with planning and precision against a side that is still looking for that elusive spark. A team travelling more in hope than expectation.

The head to heads make for grim reading as far as Flyers’ fans are concerned - played four, lost four, and three of them were at the ‘emphatic’ end of the scale (8-1, 6-1 and 4-1).

But this is play-off hockey. Anything can happen.

Flyers have nothing to lose, and if they can reproduce the gutsy performance they showed against Braehead, but also cut out the sloppy defending, then they might - just might - deliver one of their trademark knockout blows.

Play-off hockey brings out the best in hockey players.

A season of frustration can be discarded like a wet towel chucked on to the dressing-room floor, and a new, sharper, focussed skater hits the ice ready to do business.

Flyers showed signs of that against an impressive Clan side that was shooting for the Champions League.

They checked, hustled and backed each other up, and had it not been for some rope-a-dope defending made up on the hoof - the same problems that have beset too many performances across the campaign - they would have got the point their play, and, more importantly, their effort, deserved.

But the reality is they still need to raise the bar higher if they are to overcome a Sheffield side that bristles with talent and is fuelled by clear momentum.

Steelers stalked Braehead all the way in the title. The race for silverware brings its own intense pressures; all pretty much loaded on to the team in pole position which can sense the breath of the hunting pack pulsing down its necks. When Clan detonated with a 2-0 loss to Edinburgh - a singular wrecking ball of a result - Sheffield moved with predatory menace.

Steelers lost just three of their closing 12 games in all competitions, and that included three shut outs.

They led the stats too with Matthieu Roy and Michael Forney commanding the goalscoring returns - Roy’s 95 points complemented by Forney’s 84 - in a partnership based on telepathy, while Frank Doyle was the second best netminder in the EIHL with a GAA of 2:42. Unbeatable at one end of the pad, unstoppable at the other.

Steelers will play with tempo and will seek to dominate across the ice pad.

Fife demonstrated they can live with the biggest teams around only last weekend, but they have to show they have enough in the tank to do it over 120 minutes across two nights either side of a four-hour bus trip.

But that’s play-off hockey. There is no respite and zero margin for error.

Hockey players wouldn’t have it any other way.

It’s the sort of stage tailor made for guys like Jordan Fulton to lead the line and graft and drive the net time after time; a stage for the showmen like Ned Lukacevic to dig deep into their bag of tricks that can electrify any arena; a stage for guys like Scott Fleming and Jamie Milam, the foundations of the team, to stand firm and drive their line-mates onwards.

If the individual cogs in the machine all synch, if the hockey heads are switched on, if they remain strong, mentally and physically, hen Flyers have a chance.

The underdog status will probably suit them too - give them a chance this weekend and they may, just may, bite.

But above all, they have to give their performances of the season; 120 minutes of honest sweat and commitment.

Braehead v Hull:

Clan deserve all the plaudits going for their achievements this season, regardless of missing out on the title. They raised the bar both on and off the ice.

They combine grit with guile and are more than capable of triumphing at Nottingham this time round.

From a hot goalie to some lethal forwards, Clan are more than solid and should be too strong for a gallant Hull side which has skated with as few as 11 skaters to get this far.

Stingrays are awkward opponents, but they seem to have peaked just too soon. Their main aim will be to keep the first leg tight and get Braehead back to the north-east where games can be tough to win.

Nottingham v Coventry

Two teams who will be glad to see the back of this campaign.

Panthers and Blaze have made a right hash of some hockey nights this year - both riddled with inconsistency and well off the pace.

The play-offs even looked a forlorn hope for Blaze as they muddled their way to ninth spot before getting their act together.

They go into this weekend with some form and momentum, and, if there is to be a shock result, it may well come here.

Cardiff v Belfast
One of these two teams ain’t going to the finals weekend - that’s about the only certainty we can draw from this intriguing match-up.

Giants were dominant last season, brought back their inspired team and, the hockey gods rewarded them with a distant fifth spot.

Cardiff, meanwhile, transformed their fortunes by lifting the Challenge Cup and establishing themselves as title contenders. With their mojo back, Devils must be keen for a return to the finals weekend. If so, it could be the dawn of a new era in Wales.