OUTSIDE of East Yorkshire, not many hockey fans will give Hull Stingrays much chance of repeating their Elite League play-off heroics of two years ago when reaching the final four weekend in Nottingham.
On that occasion, Sylvain Cloutier’s team defeated Sheffield Steelers over two legs – helped largely by Derek Campbell’s hat-trick at Ice Sheffield – to crush Ryan Finnerty’s hopes of salvaging their season.
The Stingrays were subsequently thrashed in the semi-final by an unforgiving Nottingham Panthers team, who then went on to win the second of three straight play-off trophies.
Fast forward two years and the Stingrays find themselves in a similar situation – up against more fancied opponents – this time in the shape of Paul Adey’s all-conquering Belfast Giants – and, seemingly, with little chance of getting beyond the first round of the post season once again.
But given what happened two years ago it would be foolish to completely write Hull off – although it has to be said they will be facing a much stronger, all-round team than that of Finnerty’s Steelers in 2012.
Save for a staggering comeback by Nottingham in this week’s second leg of the Challenge Cup final, noone has been able to live with Belfast this season. They romped to their third Elite League championship, eventually finishing a remarkable 23 points clear of their nearest rivals (Steelers), sealing the title with more than a month of the regular season remaining.
Four meetings between the two sides this season have produced four victories for the Giants, the closest Hull coming to victory being a 3-2 home defeat back in September.
But while all the expectancy will be on Belfast, it has to be remembered that Hull themselves have enjoyed something of a stellar campaign, posting their biggest-ever points haul in an Elite League season, as well as recording their most wins in a top-flight campaign and setting a new club record of six straight wins.
Throw in two victories against both Nottingham and Sheffield and things don’t look so clear-cut ahead of tonight’s first leg at Hull Arena.
Player-coach Cloutier, who turned 40 earlier this season, admits his team will have to produce an optimum performance if they are going to stand any chance of causing what would be a far bigger upset than that they sprang in South Yorkshire in 2012.
“This Belfast team is a lot different to that Sheffield team we faced two years ago,” said Cloutier. “I think they have only lost six games in regulation all year or something like that. They are very, very hard to break down.
“These are the biggest two games of our season. We have to stay focussed and play a perfect game - every one of our guys is pumped for this weekend. Let’s face it, if you’re not ready for games like this then you shouldn’t be playing.
“We’re going to have to step up our game by another 20 per cent or something in order to match them. Nobody gives us a chance – but you know what? That suits us fine.”
In Guillaume Doucet and Jereme Tendler, Hull possess two of the league’s most potent weapons, with both finishing among the league’s top five points scorers during the regular season.
Aided by the guile and creativity of players such as Carl Lauzon and Matty Davies, Stingrays’ best chance of success will surely come in the home leg, with Hull Arena having proved to be a difficult place for teams to visit, at least in the latter part of the season.
Belfast have blanked Hull twice already this season, so goals will be particularly vital for the East Yorkshire club to take over the Odyssey Arena on Sunday afternoon, something acknowledged by captain Jeff Smith.
“I think we’ve done okay against them this year,” said Smith. “There have been a couple of one-goal games, close games, so we’ve been in games with them which is a positive for us.
To watch Jeff Smith preview Hull’s play-off encounter with Belfast Giants click the PLAY button at the top of the screen
“They are a very hard-working team - that is their strength. – all their lines are good and their ‘D’ is solid all the way through. They work hard every single shift - it’s a full-on, 60-minute battle when you play them.
“We need to make sure that at the end of the first leg we’re still in the game heading over to Belfast because they are a very good home team – we’ve really got to turn the screw on them at our place.
“We’ve got the guys who can put up the points. For the last few years it’s just been Jereme (Tendler), but now we’ve got Doucet, Lauzon and Davies all chipping in.
“They’ve really stepped up their game this season and gave us that secondary scoring which is something we’ve been missing for the last couple of years.”
THE STORY SO FAR ...... STINGRAYS V GIANTS
Sep 29: Stingrays 2 Belfast 3
Nov 9: Stingrays 0 Belfast 2
Dec 30: Belfast 6 Stingrays 1 (also Challenge Cup quarter-final)
Feb 7: Belfast 3 Stingrays 0