COVENTRY BLAZE again provided a glimpse of what their season could have been like when they stormed into Sunday’s Elite League Play-off final by swatting favourites Cardiff Devils aside in a stunning 6-2 triumph.
They will come up against Nottingham Panthers in Sunday afternoon’s final after they came through 4-1 against the Gardiner Conference’s only representative in the final four weekend 4-1.
Having finished eighth in the regular season, Chuck Weber’s side have found their groove once again in the play-offs - much like last year when they timed their upturn in form to perfection, eventually beating Sheffield Steelers in the play-off final 4-2.
It was the Steelers - who Coventry dominated 6-2 in the regular season series - who again fell victim to the Blaze in the play-offs, this time the two meeting in the first round last weekend which saw the West Midlands club prevail 8-6 on aggregate.
But even after beating the five-time league champions - coached by their former boss Paul Thompson - most people at Nottingham’s sell-out NIC probably still favoured league and Challenge Cup runners-up Cardiff to book their place in the final.
But by the end of the first period, it was pretty obvious that wasn’t going to happen.
As the teams went in at the first break, Coventry were already 4-0 ahead and were 6-0 ahead before Cardiff registered anything on the board, by way of two very late consolation efforts.
The first blow came in only the third minute when Chris Bruton forced the puck over the line after a scramble in front of Ben Bowns’s goal.
It got worse for player-coach Andrew Lord’s side when they conceded two goals in the space of 10 seconds, the first coming on the powerplay at 9.54 from the stick of Brett Robinson who deftly deflected in Carl Lauzon’s fee before Cale Tanaka - a constant menace throughout for the Devils - held off pressure from an opponent to wrap the puck around Bowns at 10.04.
The Devils called a timeout but nothing much seemed to change and it was Tanaka’s skill with a backhand pass across the crease that set up Bruton for his second of the night, firing past a helpless Bowns at 16.44.
Cardiff steadied the ship after the interval but still found themselves slip further behind before the halfway mark when Josh Godfrey - fed by Tanaka - followed up his own rebound to fire home and make it 5-0 at 28.56.
With less than 10 minutes remaining, it was obvious there was going to be no way back for a Devils side who had simply failed to deliver on the promise they had shown all season, their day getting worse when Bruton - who only arrived from Braehead earlier this year - completed his hat-trick with a low shot that squeezed through the unfortunate Bowns at 52.39.
Lord’s team never gave up though and did get on the board at 58.21 through Gleason Fournier, who scored with a high shot through traffic.
With 40 seconds remaining, Joey Hadded added a second but it was already obvious it was much too little, much too late.
“I couldn’t be more proud of the total team effort and total team buy in to the adjustments and structure that we put in,” said Weber afterwards.
“There’s some things that I’ve been holding on to since January from an adjustments standpoint that I’ve had in my back pocket and we made those this week and I couldn’t be more proud of the way the boys handled it.”
As for Lord, he was left to reflect on a season that should have built on last season’s Challenge Cup triumph but, in the final few weeks, has failed to do so.
“I have got to apologise to our fans who have come all this way and have paid so much money to support us,” he said.
“To have a performance like that simply isn’t good enough.
“For whatever reason we had guys who just didn’t rise up to the challenge. It is an unbelievable atmosphere this weekend and we just made mistakes I have not seen us make all season.”
Later in the day, Nottingham were always in control against Todd Dutiaume’s Flyers.
After a scoreless first, two goals in just over a minute around the halfway mark of the game proved pivotal.
On a powerplay, David Clarke had the time and space to rifle a wrist shot past David Brown at 30.48 and, after Robert Farmer cannoned one back off the Flyers crossbar, Logan MacMillan one-timed past Brown to double the Panthers’ lead.
The Flyers clung on through some relentless Panthers pressure before halving the deficit just over four minutes into the third when Ryan Dingle somehow squeezed a shot past Miika Wiikman from almost on the goal line.
But it was the Panthers who scored next, quickly restoring their two-goal advantage when Brad Moran slotted home at 46.58.
It effectively killed off the Flyers challenge, with Evan Mosey adding the icing on the cake at 54.46.