Ice hockey's play-off race

By Craig AndersonBBC Sport Nation
Ice hockey

We're heading into the business end of the season and while some of the higher quality teams in the Elite League battle for the title, the Scots sides are all looking at play-off places.

Belfast Giants and Nottingham Panthers were the first teams to qualify for the 2011 edition so, with another six places to play for, it's still very much open.

For the Scottish teams, it's promising to be a thrilling finale to the season, although Braehead Clan in a distant sixth place and well clear points wise, need not concern.

As for the bottom places, only two can qualify out of four with Edinburgh Capitals, Fife Flyers and Dundee Stars in the mix along with Hull Stingrays.

Dave Simms, Sky Sports' Elite League highlights show presenter and all-round ice hockey fan, believes Capitals' coach Richard Hartmann has the hardest job.

Simms said: "Hartmann, for me, has the toughest task and it's the fact he's only got three games with the other teams in the bottom four to come.

"There's an argument that he won himself a new contract after getting the wins he got with the schedule they had.

"It's the same argument that could be used to say Dan Ceman lost his job at Dundee and was replaced by Brent Hughes because of their tough fixture list at the start of the season.

"If the gap was closer between them and the ninth place team, whether they would be more worried.

"Needless to say if they get at least a couple of wins, it could make things very tough for Fife and Dundee below them."

Of the four sides involved in this dogfight, the run of fixtures to come suggests Edinburgh will be the ones with the toughest job to hang on to their place.

With only one win in 17 and without a win in nine, their last 14 games see them play teams from the top half of the table 10 times…and the Caps have yet to beat any of them.

Dundee and Fife seem to have it slightly better, with the Stars playing bottom-placed teams seven times in their last 12 matches.

Flyers, meanwhile, have six in 14, although six out of their last eight fixtures are all bottom-half clashes.

It's the Stingrays, however, that appear to have disappointed Simms when he talks about the current situation they're in, despite their double weekend win over Dundee, and he's certain they'll qualify through the players they have.

He added: "Hull are one of the biggest underachievers in the Elite League and even the most vehement fan, down to the coach, the management and the players would admit that.

"From day one they've been disappointing and the reason they will make it is down to the talented individuals within their team such as Jason Silverthorn and Christian Boucher.

"Boucher is a goalie, who, like Garrett Zemlak of Fife, can steal a game and I think they'll have the quality necessary to win the four or five games they need to be sure.

So, in Simms' view, who will be getting an extra couple of matches beyond the conclusion of the regular season and who will miss out?

He said: "I said if there was a closer gap between Edinburgh and the team in ninth, the Caps would be worried.

"But I just wonder whether Fife or Dundee can win not three games, but three more games than Edinburgh in the weeks to come.

"That said, despite losing at the weekend, the Flyers, to me, look the likelier to make a late push for the play-offs.

"Even if the Caps win a couple, despite only having to play teams in the bottom half only four times in their last 14 matches, I don't think the Stars or the Flyers would beat that.

"I must admit I see Fife and Dundee missing out this year, but I reckon the Flyers are a team with identity that have the capability to succeed at this level in years to come.

"It's that identity that stands them out from Edinburgh, Dundee and Hull with the history and the passion the people of Kirkcaldy have for their team. That's where they'll succeed in the future."