TWO years ago, Hull Stingrays’ memorable run to the Elite League play-off semi-finals came off the back of them finishing seventh in the regular season with 36 points.
This campaign has already seen them post the club’s highest-ever haul of 50 points in the UK’s top flight, but they find themselves going into tomorrow night’s final league game against Yorkshire rivals Sheffield Steelers needing to win, while at the same time hoping results elsewhere go their way in order to make it to the post-season.
It’s a clear indication of how the quality of the league has improved in the intervening period and, whoever joins traditional whipping boys Edinburgh Capitals in missing out on the play-offs should probably feel rightly aggrieved.
Hull, currently in the eighth and final play-off spot, are only eight points behind third-placed Dundee – a further indication of how tight the league has been this season, apart from runaway champions Belfast Giants and Edinburgh cast aside at the bottom of the standings.
Sylvain Cloutier’s team have dazzled at times this year, posting a club record winning streak of six games, beating reigning champions Nottingham Panthers twice, as well as overcoming Gerad Adams’s Sheffield team 5-1 only two weeks ago on the same ice where they will resume hostilities tomorrow.
Essentially, Hull’s whole season comes down to one night, with player-coach Cloutier hoping his team can erase a forgettable night at Dundee Stars last Saturday when they were hammered 8-2, by producing an evening to remember at Hull Arena tomorrow.
“Nothing went right for us in Dundee – from goaltending, defence, forwards, anything – nothing worked,” said Cloutier. “It was just one of those nights to forget.”
A 3-2 defeat followed in Sheffield for Hull after their nightmare on Tayside. Combined with two wins at the weekend for both Fife Flyers and Cardiff Devils, as well as a triumph over Nottingham for Coventry Blaze, it ensured Hull’s destiny was taken out of their hands.
Going into this weekend, any one of those four teams can still miss out, Fife facing Scottish rivals Braehead Clan twice, with Cardiff’s last game being in Coventry tomorrow night, after the Blaze – coached by former Steelers assistant coach Marc LeFebvre – travel to Sheffield tonight.
All Hull can do is ensure they repeat their earlier win over the Steelers and hope that, unlike last weekend when every result possible went against them, they catch a break during the next 48 hours.
“I am surprised we’re in this position given the season we’ve had,” said Cloutier. “We made the play-offs two years ago with something like 36 or 37 points. This time we’ve got 50 points and if you’d have offered us that amount at the start of the season we would happily have taken it.
“But it’s a sign of how good the league has been this year
“I think we’ll make the play-offs, but somewhere there is going to be a really good hockey team that doesn’t make it. Hopefully, the hockey gods will be on our side and it won’t be us.”
Cloutier has faith in a roster that has earned many plaudits this season, their offensive ability being recognised by the fact that no other team has two players in the league’s top five points scorers.
“In this league, the play-offs effectively start with the first game of the regular season and you’ve got to be consistent all year,” said Cloutier.
“But we’ve made it hard on ourselves with it coming down to the last game so this is when we’ll find out what kind of character we have – who wants to show up on Sunday and who wants to keep going. My players have it in them, I know they do.”
For Steelers’ coach Gerad Adams, the weekend is more about his players’ performance and attitude ahead of the first round of the play-offs a week from now.
Adams said the fact his team could potentially determine two other teams’ destinies has not impacted particularly on anyone at the South Yorkshire club.
“We could play either one of these teams in the play-offs, so any mental edge we can get over them now could be a big benefit,” said Adams.
“The last time we were in Hull we got what we deserved and I don’t think were really prepared for what to expect – including me. That won’t be the case this time around.”
HULL last night held their end-of-season awards ceremony, with Guillaume Doucet the star of the show after picking up two awards.
Canadian forward Doucet was named player of the year following a stunning debut campaign, leading the team in scoring with 81 points (48 goals and 33 assists) from 58 games to sit second overall in the point-scoring charts in the Elite League He also has the highest number of powerplay goals (19).
Doucet, also short-listed for the Elite League player of the year, later returned to the stage to pick up the Forward of the Year accolade at the Mercure Grange Park Hotel in Willerby.
Carl Lauzon, who has formed a potent partnership with Doucet this season, was chosen as the Players’ Player of the Year, while Jereme Tendler, who has surpassed 40 goals in a season for the third time in four years, was the coach’s Player of the Year.
Slovakian defenceman Martin Ondrej was named the Defenceman of the Year, British blue-liner Jamie Chilcott collected the Rookie of the Year, while back-up netminder Mike Bolton received the Fans’ Favourite of the Year gong.