Crunch time arrives for Stingrays

IT’S make or break this weekend for Hull Stingrays’ Elite League play-off hopes, according to player-coach Sylvain Cloutier.

A dreadful 7-2 home loss to Coventry Blaze saw Cloutier labelling his players’ performance as “embarrassing”, leaving his side six points adrift of the play-off places with 15 games remaining.

A double-header against Dundee Stars this weekend presents Stingrays with an ideal opportunity to close the gap on their rivals, in both league and Gardiner Conference standings.

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The first encounter takes place at Hull Arena on Saturday night (6.30pm) before Cloutier’s team head to Tayside on Sunday.

“It’s pretty simple - it’s do or die,” said Cloutier. “You show up and want it and, if you don’t, the season is over.

“The guys have 15 games left in which to do something and this weekend is big.

“If our guys want to play past March 24 (the end of the regular season) then it is time to step it up.”

Dundee currently sit seventh in the overall standings, seven points ahead of Hull and with two games in hand.

The conference rivals have already met four times this season, with another two scheduled March. So far, Dundee have the upper-hand, winning three of the previous encounters, Hull’s solitary success being a 4-3 home win back in October.

In forwards Sami Ryhanen and Mike Wirll, Dundee have two of the most prolific points scorers in the whole Elite League - with the former leading the league scoring charts for assists with 48 in 39 games overall. And while Hull will be looking for more of the same from league top goalscorer Jereme Tendler, they will be hoping to give their Canadian goal machine more assistance with some contributions from elsewhere.

While just the one win would not end Hull’s hopes of making the play-offs through the overall league standings, Cloutier is looking for his players to find a way of taking four points from the weekend.

“They are a good side, they are strong defensively, their goaltender has won them some games and they have found ways to win games,” he added.

“It is a must-win four points. You can split it but then you are back to square one so we have to find a way to win both games.”

With first-choice netminder Ben Bowns away with Great Britain for the final Olympic qualifiers in Latvia, Greg Blais will step in once again, making his sixth appearance of the season at home on Saturday. Ryan Hand misses out on Saturday through suspension.

IN the English Premier League, Sheffield Steeldogs face a similar situation in their bid to reach the end-of-season play-offs.

They are also six points adrift of the post-season placings, but will be hoping home advantage will play a huge role when they take on fourth-placed Slough Jets tonight (7.30pm), before welcoming league leaders Basingstoke Bison to Ice Sheffield tomorrow (5.30pm).

Player-coach Andre Payette, who was disappointed with two defeats last weekend - including a reverse against Peterborough Phantoms, who occupy the eighth and final play-off spot, believes home form will be crucial for the Steeldogs in the run-in to the close of the regular season.

“There is a real sense of belief and pride within our team at present,” said Payette.

“We will keep on fighting and doing everything in our power to reach that final play-off spot. There are still 26 points up for grabs and we just have to try and win as many of our home games as possible.”