REACHING the Elite League play-off semi-finals was always going to be a tough ask for Hull Stingrays. The size of that task has now doubled.
Going up against the season’s standout team in league champions Belfast Giants - who romped to the regular season title by 23 points - presented the toughest route for any team into the final four weekend in Nottingham next week..
And as they head to the Odyssey Arena trailing 4-1, Sylvain Cloutier’s team will rue a five-minute spell at the start of the second period in Saturday night’s first leg in Hull, when they allowed the Giants to take control by scoring three goals in a devastating spell.
Prior to that, home supporters had begun to dare to dream having seen their side worth their one-goal lead going into the first break, courtesy of Omar Pacha’s powerplay strike at 9.21.
But the previously buoyant home crowd were silenced for a while within five minutes of the restart, Colin Shields levelling within 34 seconds, before Chris Higgins put the visitors ahead 36 seconds later.
And as the home side attempted to regroup, they were hit again at 24.17, Jeff Szwez backhanding past Ben Bowns. After that, Belfast slipped into cruise control, although Hull continued to be a sporadic menace, matching the Giants shot for shot without seriously troubling Stephen Murphy in the visitors’ goal.
Heading into Belfast two-goals adrift would have been a difficult enough task in itself, but when Paul Adey’s team further increased their first leg advantage to 4-1 through Kevin Saurette’s powerplay strike with less than three minutes remaining, it seemed to suck the remaining life out of the building for the home side.
In the post-match presentation, player-coach Cloutier insisted “it ain’t over yet” during his end-of-season address to fans who had stayed behind to applaud their team after their final home game of a successful campaign.
Owner and assistant coach Bobby McEwan, added: “The guys stuck to the game-plan, nicked a goal on the powerplay and we were frustrating them in the first period. They were awesome.
“But simple assignments were missed at the start of the second and it has cost us. We are only halfway through and we have to go to Belfast still believing we can do it.”
Sheffield Steelers will be determined to avoid lightning striking twice in the play-offs after taking a 3-2 lead back home to the Motorpoint Arena after their quarter-final first leg clash at Coventry Blaze.
The Steelers won the same fixture by the same scoreline last season, only to miss out on a place in the semi-finals for the second season running when losing 4-2 at home to Blaze in the return leg at Ice Sheffield.
Saturday night’s victory at the Skydome Arena was tainted slightly, however, when it was revealed later that forward Jeff Legue would require surgery on a broken jaw,
The 32-year-old was taken off the ice after being struck in the face by the puck in the first period.
Russell Cowley put Blaze in front on the powerplay at 9.28, but Jason Hewitt levelled with 38 seconds of the first period remaining.
Maxime Lacroix (25.14) nudged Steelers ahead, only for Gerome Giudice to tie it up once more at 30.51. But just over a minute later, Steelers’ captain Steven Goertzen drove the net to see the visitors into the lead again.
“I think content is the word after that,” said Steelers head coach Gerad Adams.
“I felt we played a good enough hockey game to win and it was unfortunate to lose a guy like Jeff Legue like that - sometimes that can rock a team when a guy goes down like that, but I was pleased with the mental toughness shown to get through it.
“I’d like to get back at Coventry tomorrow night, but we’ve got a bit of a break now and we’ll have a practice in-between play-off games which is a bit unusual, but I’ll look forward to that.”
Elsewhere, former Steelers coach Ryan Finnerty was finally able to celebrate reaching the final four weekend when his Braehead Clan side thrashed Nottingham Panthers 5-1 in Glasgow, sealing a memorable 9-1 aggregate triumph.
It means there will be no Nottingham side competing at the grand finale to the Elite League season – their home rink – but, for Finnerty it heralds a significant step forward.
During his two years as Steelers’ head coach, Finnerty couldn’t get his team past the first round in the post season, losing first to Hull and then Coventry last year.
Quarter Finals 1st leg: Coventry Blaze 2 Sheffield Steelers 3, Hull Stingrays 1 Belfast Giants 4, Fife Flyers 4 Dundee Stars 3.
Quarter Finals, 2nd leg: Braehead Clan 5 Nottingham Panthers 1 (Braehead win on aggregate 9-1).