EIHL Super Sunday is over, and the playoff matchups are decided. Belfast will take on Hull, Dundee will face Fife, Sheffield confront Coventry and Braehead take on Nottingham in two-legged elimination games for the right to head to Nottingham for finals weekend, after a pulsating final day of the regular season that saw an unbearably tense game in Coventry, a raucous sellout crowd celebrate an incredible comeback in Fife, Hull once again beat Sheffield in their own rink to save their season (although this time it didn’t end Sheffield’s) and heartbreak for Cardiff. It also saw teams go in and out like demented Hokey Cokey dancers before Cardiff had their hopes all but destroyed with an OT winner from Michael Henrich.
You’d think after a day like that, everyone would take a few days off to recover, but preparations are already in full swing for the playoffs-in fact, they start on Thursday with Nottingham taking on Braehead.
And with these playoffs, the best thing about them is the number of storylines. Every single team and game has their own unique “selling point” to follow. Let’s have a run through each team:
Belfast Giants: THE GRAND SLAM CHASE
The Giants have been all-conquering this season, and barring a BIG comeback from Nottingham on Tuesday, they’ll be league and Challenge Cup champions. With the Erhardt Conference also theirs, a playoff title would see them go one better than Nottingham’s “Grand Slam” and win every possible competition. The Giants have rolled over all opposition up until now-can anyone stop them?
Dundee Stars: THE SURPRISE PACKAGE
The Stars have been one of the stories of this season: Jeff Hutchins’ team have surpassed all expectations for much of this season, and battled several key injuries in their time to finish a superb third (and second seed). Now they have a chance to be only the second Scottish team to reach the EIHL finals weekend since the Elite League’s inception. Can they bring a superb season to an end with silverware?
Sheffield Steelers: THE QUEST FOR REVENGE
The past two seasons have seen Sheffield not even make it out of the EIHL quarter-finals-beaten by Coventry last year and Hull the year before-a state of affairs that simply isn’t acceptable for one of the biggest clubs in the EIHL. This year has again seen them fail to live up to expectations, but with another tie against Coventry in the quarters, can they take revenge on the Blaze for dumping them out last year?
Braehead Clan: THE GREAT PRETENDERS
In only their fourth season in the league, the Clan have already become one of the best-run, best-supported and bigger teams in the EIHL. But up until now, they haven’t managed to convert any of that into a genuine push for silverware beyond their own conference. With a playoff tie against Nottingham, the “original” team of their owner Neil Black looming, can the problem child beat the Panthers and overturn the family status quo?
Nottingham Panthers: THE LAST CHANCE
The Panthers have, by their own admission, not got anywhere NEAR the heights of last season. Thanks to a combination of injuries, inconsistent or even downright silly play (yes, I’m looking at you, Brent Henley), they’re in real danger of following up winning everything by…winning nothing. With a tricky tie against Neil Black’s “other” team Braehead in the quarter finals, too, there’s a real danger the Panthers might not be in attendance at their own hometown party in two weeks time. Can they get there-and if so, can they end the season on a high?
Coventry Blaze: THE REDEMPTION QUEST
This Blaze team has flattered to deceive all year. Despite a roster that looked like it could compete for the title pre-season and one of the most electrifying players in the league, this is a team that had high expectations and met exactly none of them. They were one Cardiff goal away from not making the playoffs for the first time since coming to Coventry, in either the BNL or EIHL…even now, 6th is their equal worst finish in the EIHL era.
But with a horrific incident in the final seconds of Sunday’s game, the Blaze found their rallying point-a nasty check from Matt Myers left star forward Shea Guthrie unconscious on the ice and, although it’s since been confirmed that the Canadian is OK, whether or not he’ll play again this season depends on medical assessments this week. Even if he does, the “do it for Shea” cry is a powerful motivator for a squad who have taken their fair share of stick this season and are now left with the playoffs are their only chance for any sort of redemption.
Fife Flyers: THE FREIGHT TRAIN
Fife are the team nobody wants to play right now. The Flyers were eleven points out of the playoffs in January, but an incredible end to the season saw them overhaul that gap with unlikely win after incredible comeback after hard-fought victory, and now, as they come into the playoffs, the historic Kingdom is screaming its defiance and Fife is united as one behind Todd Dutiaume, Danny Stewart and their band of brothers. With a massive Scottish derby against local rivals Dundee as their quarter finals, there is probably no more motivated team in the EIHL right now, nor any trickier opponent, particularly in the Auld Barn in Kirkcaldy. Last year, they very nearly derailed Nottingham’s chase for a treble, only being knocked out by a disputed loss in Nottingham that Fife fans still burn with injustice about to this day. This year, the Flyers are coming, and they’re bringing hell with them. Just how far can they go?
Hull Stingrays: THE UNDERDOG
The Stingrays have the toughest draw, only making the playoffs on the last day of the season thanks to a win v Sheffield and results elsewhere. But the team from the North East have proved that they’re no respectors of reputation, as proved by the fact that they’ve beaten every team this season. Now, they stand in the way of the juggernaut that is this season’s Belfast Giants. Can they meet the challenge, or will power prevail?
There’s the storylines for all eight EIHL PO teams. This week we’ll be previewing one quarter-final a day up until Friday, starting with The Grand Slam Chase v The Underdog (Belfast v Hull) on Tuesday. Keep an eye out, EIHL fans.
It’s playoff time. And there’s a whole new set of stories waiting to be written.