UNDERSTANDABLY, Hull Stingrays head into their Elite League first round play-off clash with Braehead Clan as clear underdogs - but that doesn’t bother player-coach Omar Pacha one bit.
Braehead have enjoyed a stellar season under former Sheffield Steelers’ head coach Ryan Finnerty, finishing runners-up in the overall league standings and, with it, clinching a place in Europe’s growing Champions Hockey League. They also strolled to the Gardiner Conference title, winning it by a whopping 18 points.
In the head-to-head series between Braehead and Hull, it was the Glasgow club who enjoyed greater success, winning six out of the eight fixtures.
It should therefore come as no surprise that most people are tipping the post-season second seeds to advance to the the Final Four Weekend at Nottingham’s National Ice Centre, repeating last season’s journey where they were beaten 3-2 by Finnerty’s former employers.
But, the fact Hull have twice got the better of Braehead - including once on the road - combined with Hull’s ability to produce occasional, unexpected results is enough reason for first-season player-coach Pacha to be confident as he takes his team north of the border for tonight’s first leg.
“I don’t really care and I don’t think our team really cares whether we’re underdogs or whether we’re favourites,” said Pacha.
“Braehead are a team we’ve beaten twice this year and we also lost in a shoot-out up there when we were leading the game until very late on.
“I think it’s been an achievement to make the play-offs in a way. It was our goal at the beginning of the season but, for everything we’ve been through this year it’s good to have made it. We’ve faced a lot of adversity in Hull - injuries, guys leaving and a really condensed schedule in the past few weeks where we’ve been playing a lot of the time with only 10 or 11 fit players.”
The last time the two teams met was only last weekend, with the Clan strolling to an emphatic 9-4 victory against an injury-hit Stingrays, who played with only 12 outskaters.
It’s hoped defenceman Yan Turcotte and forwards Zach Hervato and Cory Tanaka may have recovered in time for the first leg, with Pacha saying a late decision will be made on all three ahead of Saturday’s first leg in Glasgow.
Hervato has missed the last eight games and Turcotte has sat out six, while Tanaka is doubtful after sustaining a nasty skate cut millimetres from his eye in the defeat to Braehead.
“I think we are two evenly-matched teams,” added Pacha. “It has been all year between us apart from that last game against them, which was just a complete blowout. I can probably put that one down to fatigue and a lack of bodies.
“I think it is possible for us to make the FInal Four Weekend because we’re playing a team we have beaten before so you have to go into the games thinking we have a chance to win.
“But, we need to take it one step at a time as we have a very good Braehead team to try and get past first this weekend.”
Finnerty, of course, has suffered plkay-off agony at the hands of Hull previously. When coach of the Steelers back in 2012, he watched helplessly as his team went down 7-4 on aggregate to former player-coach Sylvain Cloutier’s team, who thanks to a Derek Campbell hat-trick won 5-2 in the first round second leg at Ice Sheffield.
The following year, Finnerty’s hopes of making the final four were again ended at the first hurdle when his team lost out to Coventry Blaze over two legs.