Stingrays look to finally deliver on promising performances against top clubs

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WITH the dust now finally settled on which import forward was heading for the exit door at Hull Stingrays, player-coach Sylvain Cloutier hopes his team can begin to establish some much-needed consistency.

This weekend doesn’t provide the easiest of opportunities to try and put a winning sequence together, but Cloutier will be looking for his players to finally deliver on all the promising performances they have produced against the Elite League’s top teams this season.

First up is a second trip of the campaign to the Odyssey Arena to take on a Belfast Giants still reeling from the loss of key forward Benoit Doucet for the rest of the season due to a knee injury, sustained accidentally when a linesman fell on him while trying to separate the Canadian from Braehead’s Sam Zajac.

Then, barely four hours after landing at Leeds-Bradford Airport on Sunday, Hull head home to welcome a Sheffield Steelers’ team buoyed by the this week’s unexpected acquisition of former Coventry Blaze forward Luke Fulghum.

Hull’s previous trip to Belfast ended in a 5-3 defeat in their opening game, while they have also pushed Doug Christiansen’s league leaders in Hull, going down 4-3 and 3-1.

While admitting that the loss of leading points scorer Doucet will be a big loss for the Giants, Cloutier is quick to point out the quality remaining at the hosts’ disposal.

“It’s going to be a big loss to any side when you lose a player like Doucet, particularly in the way that it happened - you never want to see that,” said Cloutier.

“But they’ve still got plenty of depth in terms of quality, they decided to go with the spare import at the start of the season, so they’re still a very strong unit.

“They’ll want to come out at us hard for us from the very first drop and make life difficult for us. It is a very difficult building to go into, but they’re aren’t many easy ones to be honest.

“We did okay considering it was our first game of the season when we last went there.

“I think things are more settled in our room after the import situation was sorted and the guys have felt good all week in training, but there’s no doubt these are two tough games we face this weekend.”

With the extra time away that a trip to Belfast often entails for visiting teams, Cloutier doesn’t feel his team will be at any significant advantage by the time Ryan Finnerty’s Steelers’ side arrive at Hull Arena on Sunday evening.

Fulghum’s arrival in Sheffield on Thursday night increases the chances of a longer-term deal for former Hull import Frantisek Bakrlik at Coventry, who picked him up after he had been axed from the Hull roster by Cloutier on Monday.

While the Czech forward may have been one of the most talented forwards to sign for the club in recent years, he failed to deliver enough goals in his three months there.

Steelers will receive a double boost this weekend with captain Jonathan Phillips returning to the line-up to play alongside new arrival Fulghum.

Cloutier added: “Flughum is definitely a good pick-up for Sheffield, but with Phillips also coming back it will feel like they’ve got two new signings.

“It’s good for Ryan (Finnerty) that the ownership have allowed him to go and get Luke, he’s a quality player.

“We’ve pushed them close twice this season so we know we can compete with them - we just need to cut out our mistakes as they always seem to prove costly.”

While Bakrlik’s exit brought Stingrays back down to their allotted number of 10 imports, they will go into the weekend one import light as they wait on the results of defenceman Dmitry Rodin’s MRI scan.

The Estonia international has missed the last three games, but returned to the ice on Tuesday for a light skate, the same day he had his scan.

Cloutier added: “He will have another skate next week and, hopefully, we might have him available for our weekend up in Scotland.”