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Apocalypse Now

Our hockey reporter Neil Chiplen wraps up a wild play-off quarter-final weekend

Features - Neil Chiplen Posted 7th April 2012 view comments

I awoke this morning and stepped outside expecting to see a blood-red sky, Zombies staggering along the pavement, cars flipped upside down and meteors falling from the heavens. I really did believe that I'd seen the first sign of the apocalypse on Sunday night when Derek Campbell scored a hat-trick.

That's right, buckethead himself. The cockroach of the Elite League, the man who finds another team every September in some kind of modern day miracle, not only scored three times, but also powered the biggest upset in the history of the Elite League and the biggest upset in British hockey since, well, since I can remember.

Ryan Finnerty: Big call

Ryan Finnerty: Big call

Just kidding, it's alright, I love ya Derek. The #7-seeded Hull Stingrays overcame the might of the #2-seeded Sheffield Steelers. David didn't beat Goliath. His kid brother did.

On a weekend when the only upset on the cards looked like Braehead and their three-goal headstart beating Nottingham, instead we got something completely unexpected. The Panthers fought back, the Clan held their sticks too tight before hiding behind the sofa and lord knows what happened in Hull and Sheffield.

Emotion

On Friday night, it looked like Corey Neilson would once again be the laughing stock of the league. Come Sunday, Coach Corey - not Mike Blaisdell Jr - was cracking open a cold one, lighting a victory cigar and cackling while reading the most unlikely score line from Sheffield. Here he is again. Corey Neilson, making a beeline for another playoff title and a summer of warm and fuzzy memories to erase the taste of a January swoon.

The other two quarter-final fixtures were much more straightforward. First, Belfast handled their business against Dundee, blowing out the Stars without breaking sweat. And while the Giants enjoyed a pre-finals open skating session, Cardiff confirmed Coventry's newfound status as a second-rate hockey club. I watched the Blaze limp away from the 2011-12 season with a tinge of sadness, feeling the same emotion as you would when carrying a sick puppy to the vet.

This wasn't about the Devils reaching the finals again and extending their streak, it was about how the mighty have fallen. It was sad and frustrating to watch the Blaze offer so little against a Devils team devoid of Brad Voth, and with Chris Frank and Max Birbraer in street clothes. At 4-1 on the night, they got off lightly. This capped a season of unwelcome confirmation that 2010-11 wasn't a blip in Coventry. Sadly, it was the shape of things to come. We knew this was a new era as the players who had defined the Blaze's decade of success had almost all gone, and it is.

The Big Four is no more. In the three divisions in the top flight of British ice hockey the Blaze have been relegated to the middle tier. With the current dispersal of the star Brits around the league and the willingness of the top three to rub salt into financial wounds by carrying spare tyres when everyone else is peddling on two wheels, there doesn't seem to be a strategy that the Blaze can undertake to claw their way back into the big time.

The scare that they endured this season has provided unwanted realism that's tough to swallow, but must go down. The Blaze will now join the Devils as a team who can only make a serious run at the big time in that four year cycle when they unearth a couple of top notch players and things fall apart for the big boys. Even this season, as they slowly gathered together and refined the roster to make a run at the playoffs, they were flat out dismissed by a workmanlike Devils team who won the puck battles and reduced Peter Hirsch to a quivering wreck every time the puck went near him.

Coventry's saving grace is the leadership group at the club and the passion of the people behind the scenes who really do bleed blue. But ultimately, it's a concern that the elite of the Elite League has been trimmed. It only takes one more to falter before we're watching a two-team league every season.

The post-mortem in Sheffield began with a thorough examination of Colt King. In a few weeks, the Steelers made the transition from genuine title contenders to getting dumped out in the quarter finals by a Stingrays team that for most of the season was mediocre at best. Somewhere in the middle of that transformation, Ryan Finnerty got his favourite taxi company on speed dial and threw King in the backseat on a one-way ticket straight outta Dodge.

Encouraged

There's more to this than Colt King. With or without him, the Steelers were amply resourced to brush aside the Stingrays. But if we focus on his firing for a moment, it reveals something about Ryan Finnerty that must be highlighted. Whatever his reasons for sacking King, whatever went on behind closed doors, whatever the personal and business aspects of the decision, if King had indeed violated Finnerty's coaching principles or damaged their personal relationship beyond the point of repair then he absolutely 100 per cent had to go. And go soon.

Ryan Finnerty is not Roberto Mancini. He has the integrity to stand by decisions even if he knows they could potentially hurt the performance of his team. He wasn't about to let Colt Tevez hang around for a couple more weeks in a desperate attempt to grab a trophy if his alleged toxic personality was clouding up the locker room. Finnerty made a decision that he can stand by for this summer and the rest of his career.

If he could have handled King differently from day one to avoid this situation then he will have learned from it going forward. If King was bad news and simply had to go then Finnerty made a decision that will serve him well for the future. If he panders to star players and sacrifices team principles that he's grown up with and encouraged throughout his time in Sheffield for just one player then he's doing himself a disservice and will find it tough to look in the mirror. If King offended Finnerty's belief system then he had to go. The timing was irrelevant. It was the right decision for him even if the immediate result didn't recognise it. When Finnerty eventually does get to sleep sometime this Thursday, at least his conscience will be clear.

The Steelers have no excuses for losing and Hull should be congratulated for pulling off a huge upset. It will be great to see one of the league's underdogs skate out in Nottingham on Saturday, breaking the status quo of playoff weekend. Sylvain Cloutier has endured some dark nights in his tenure on Humberside and this is a victory not only for him, but for Fife, Dundee and Edinburgh as well. It offers hope that finishing in the top eight can lead to something more than a quick exit.

There are players on the Stingrays roster who will be enjoying their first taste of the playoffs in Nottingham. And there are fans from Hull who have been at every playoff weekend as neutrals since the Stingrays resurfaced. Now they have somebody to cheer.

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