IT’S been a long haul, but Hull Stingrays finally lifted themselves back into the play-off places to crank up the pressure further on their Elite League rivals.
Sylvain Cloutier’s team have been in the bottom two of the overall league standings since December 8, a 4-1 win for Fife Flyers at home to Belfast being enough to overhaul them and drop them to ninth.
A week later they found themselves bottom of the heap following a 3-1 defeat to Nottingham and results elsewhere. They have remained there ever since.
But Saturday night’s exciting 5-3 win over Dundee Stars at Hull Arena - combined with a 6-2 defeat at the hands of Belfast for Braehead - lifted them into the eighth and final play-off spot, and saw their Scottish visitors replace them at the foot of the table.
Their fourth win in a row also extended their lead at the top of the Gardiner Conference - whose winners qualify for the post-season automatically - although it is increasingly likely that one of their four Scottish divisional rivals will have enough games to overhaul them for top spot between now and the last night of the regular season on March 24.
On a thrilling night in Hull, the Stingrays got off to the perfect start when Dominic Osman gave them the lead after just 46 seconds with his 24th goal of the season.
But former Hull forward Janis Ozolins - jettisoned by Cloutier in January - briefly came back to haunt his old club when he levelled at 6.36 before Stars’ player-coach Jeff Hutchins edged them ahead at 13.17.
But the home side held their nerve in a must-win game and hauled themselves level through Matty Davies at 29.24. Billy Bagron again edged the visitors ahead at 47.29, but three goals in as many minutes saw the home side home.
Cloutier tied the game at 51.47 before Davies got his second of the night and the game-winning goal at 53.37. Jason Silverthorn added an insurance strike with his 20th goal of the season at 54.26.
Sunday night brings league leaders Nottingham Panthers to East Yorkshire for a final encounter of the regular season with Hull, who will be desperate to take something from Corey Neilson’s side for the first time this campaign.
Sheffield Steelers pushed Nottingham close at the National Ice Centre on Saturday night, but couldn’t prevent the hosts running out 2-0 winners.
The second of those goals was an empty-net strike by one-time Hull target Guillaume Lepine, adding to a 27th-minute powerplay strike by David Clarke.
It leaves the Panthers four points clear of Belfast Giants with five games remaining. While Nottingham head to Hull, Belfast are in Edinburgh, where a win for Doug Christiansen’s side would aide Hull’s play-off chances.
Dundee host Fife Flyers with a win for the Tayside club being enough to lift them back above Hull, should Cloutier’s team take no points off Nottingham.