Last Sunday saw the Coventry Blaze do something they’ve only done once all season up to this point…beat a team in the Erhardt Conference. And they did it in fine style, too, scoring four goals in the opening period against the Belfast Giants, a team who had beat them truly comprehensively in the Skydome only days before.
Yes, Giants weren’t the offensive juggernaut they’d been on Tuesday, but far more importantly, this Blaze team was also completely different to the one we’d seen all year. This Blaze team was the team that the sum of its parts was supposed to be-fast, tenacious, and hard-working. It was a team that harried the Giants, pushed them off their game, and took their chances.
It was a team that actually looked dangerous coming forward. A lot of this was down to new signing Justin DaCosta, who had the kind of home debut most players dream of, constantly looking dangerous and inspiring the likes of Rory Rawlyk to show their undoubted talent also.
Perhaps the key moment of the night, however, was the fourth Blaze goal…which may come in the future to be seen as the Rawlyk Redemption. The big Canadian has been receiving all manner of criticism both from fans and his own team-mates this season, with worries of a very public rift with coach and teammates and constant questions about his attitude despite some excellent displays on ice. On Sunday night he took a pass at the blue-line on the powerplay and sent the puck screaming past Stephen Murphy into the top corner with a rocket. It was a superb shot, but the most interesting part was the celebration.
At first, Rawlyk barely reacted. It was almost as if he didn’t expect anyone to give him credit for the goal or even have his team-mates celebrate with him…the body language on the bench has suggested that he and coach Marc Lefebvre are very much at odds and that he’s a man alone in the Blaze dressing room…but then the roar swelled around the Skydome in a way that said “no matter what others say, you’re still welcome to us even if your coach doesn’t like you.” It was a swell of support that has been rare this season in Coventry, and Rawlyk reacted like a man given a burst of oxygen…you saw his head come up and think “maybe I am welcome here after all”.
It was a warming moment. Perhaps it was a sign of a new beginning.
The Blaze ownership, too, have publicly acknowledged that there are problems in the camp. On Monday, owner Andy Buxton finally came out and said publicly what those watching (including me) have been saying for months & even years…this team needs a new direction to pull it out of a stale, lifeless funk it’s been in for several years. I’ve been criticised, villified and ripped apart by Buxton and others for that view…even called a “cancer” by owners and abused by team employees in private. But now, it appears, the Blaze ownership have finally accepted the truth that’s been staring them in the face for years.
They say they’re committed to change and moving forward. These are words that have often been heard in Coventry these past few years…in fact, so often that they’ve become meaningless. A fanbase embittered by false starts and unfulfilled promises could be forgiven for being cynical even after the win against Belfast. But this week the ownership in Coventry have already shown that they’re committed to following up on their words, bringing in impressive-looking Czech forward Jakub Sindel (pronounced “ya-kub shin-dell”, by the way, Blaze fans) to provide the scoring punch that this team has been crying out for ever since the start of the season.
Sindel is very much an attacking goalscorer in the mould of Jereme Tendler or ex-Cardiff Devil Tomas Kurka, according to Coventry’s very own Czech hockey expert Jon Rowson (who writes the excellent Velvet Hockey blog amongst other work). He’s played in some of the top leagues in Europe (Finland’s Liiga, the Czech Extraliga and most recently alongside Ryan O’Marra in Italy), putting up some very good numbers. If used properly by Lefebvre and allowed to go out and play his own game while being fed by the same Blaze team that looked finally to be hitting something of a stride last Sunday, he could be a revelation.
What he already is, though, is a signal of possible intent. He’s also a challenge to Marc Lefebvre. His signing is a marker from the Blaze ownership that says “OK, up until now we’re willing to accept that there’s maybe an explanation for this beyond your coaching-it’s the players’ fault. Now we’ve given you everything you want, including a truly talented new player. If you can’t succeed despite all this, then maybe we need to talk.”
Sindel doesn’t arrive until next week…which gives the current Blaze squad two games against Braehead to show why they should not be the player to make way for the talented Czech. It also gives the Blaze themselves a valuable marker…with the Clan being one of the top teams this season, a good showing this weekend will be the first step to convincing the watching public that the win against Belfast wasn’t a blip of a team desperately fighting to save their jobs, but the start of the long road back from a tricky start to the year. It’s a very important weekend in all respects.
Like the Churchill quote says, Sunday’s win against Belfast cannot be seen as a sign of the end of the Blaze’s troubles. It cannot even be seen as the moment that turns the Blaze’s season around…that will only come in hindsight if the team and ownership deliver on all their fighting talk over the past few days consistently over the rest of the season.
But what it is, is a start. The first step. A chance to close the chapter on a start to the season which has been nowhere near as good as it could have been. And a chance, maybe, for this Blaze squad to find its full potential.
The road back starts here. The Blaze season is at a crossroads. Now the choice on which road to take is solely in their hands. But the fact the ownership has actually been willing to get to the crossroads in the first place is a start.
Now, Marc Lefebvre and his team have to deliver. Otherwise this will be just another false start.
Over to you, boys.