COVENTRY Blaze sealed their place in the Elite Ice Hockey League play-offs with a four-point weekend, beating play-off rivals Manchester Storm on Saturday, before seeing off Cardiff Devils on Sunday.
It sets up a two-legged quarter-final against regular season champions Belfast Giants, who beat Blaze last week with a 7-2 victory.
Blaze clinched the eighth and final place in the play-offs, three points ahead of the Storm, with the decisive win coming against them on Saturday.
It allowed Blaze to play with freedom in their final regular season game against the Devils at the Skydome Arena, who lost out on a third successive championship, as a result of their 3-1 loss.
Nicolai Bryhnisveen presented them with the perfect start on 3.49 when he struck his 12th league goal of the season, before both Tim Crowder and opposition player Charles Linglet were charged for roughing (8.44) after an altercation.
Blaze proceeded to open up a two-goal lead thanks to David Clements’ second of the EIHL season (21.01), but Sam Duggan reduced the deficit (28.10) for Cardiff.
The final period was largely dominated by the Devils, but they could not find a way past the impeccable Matt Hackett in goal for Blaze.
With space opening up in the opposition third, Blaze broke forward and were awarded a penalty shot (52.53) when Thom Flodqvist was brought down in a one-on-one situation – but he missed the decisive shot.
Cardiff continued to surge forward, knowing a point would take them to a third straight league title, eventually throwing forward netminder Ben Bowns into the final third as an extra attacker.
But Blaze put a halt to any impending title celebrations, when Ben Lake lashed home his 34th EIHL goal of the season into an empty net, causing celebrations both in the home end and over in Belfast amongst Giants fans, who were celebrating their status as champions.
Head coach Danny Stewart was left pleased with the weekend, going into the opening games of the play-offs.
“It was a great weekend of hockey. Arguably we played our two best games of hockey of the season when we really needed to.”
Perhaps even more impressive was their performance the previous night away to the Storm at Altrincham Ice Dome, where a 4-1 win successfully took them into the post-season.
In the Storm’s final fixture of the season and sitting a point ahead of Blaze before play started, it meant that a ‘winner takes all’ scenario was very much on the cards.
When Crowder found the net after just over three minutes then, it was the perfect start for the visitors, sending the travelling contingent into delirium.
Luke Ferrara followed that up with a second goal, firing past Matt Ginn shortly after (11:45), before Luke Moffatt narrowed the deficit (14.53) towards the end of the first period.
Shawn Pauly opened the second period with Coventry’s third (23.44), his 22nd of the season, after linking well with Crowder.
Hackett had to stay firm, only letting in one of 34 shots that he faced.
Storm threw net minder Ginn forward in a desperate last-ditch attempt to rescue the game, but Blaze captain Kevin Morris promptly put an end to those hopes by sliding the puck into an empty net to seal their play-off place.
Blaze head back to the SSE Arena on Saturday in the first-leg against the Giants (7pm), before returning to the Skydome on Sunday (5:15pm) for the penultimate second-leg.