Scots enjoy boost as Conference goes to the wire

By Craig AndersonBBC Scotland
The ice hockey season is drawing to an exciting close

When it comes to unpredictability, look no further than ice hockey's Elite League.

The four Scots sides - Braehead Clan, Edinburgh Capitals, Dundee Stars and Fife Flyers - are embroiled in a five-way fight, with Hull Stingrays, to win the Gardiner Conference as well as qualify for the play-offs.

It's an enthralling end to a great campaign and something TV host Dave Simms is excited by.

"This is the first year under this set-up, of course, but no, I can honestly say I've never seen a league like this before," said the Sky Sports highlights presenter.

"This Gardiner Conference has grabbed everyone's imagination though and it's ridiculously tight. With a single win, a team can move from the top to the bottom.

"The crazy thing is we have Hull at the top of the Conference and they were bottom of the league."

The Conference system was adapted in an attempt to create better competition for teams in their particular group, which meant extra fixtures against your "local" rivals.

The play-off format sees league champions and Conference winners given preferential seeding, with the others made up according to their overall league position.

With two weeks remaining, Hull, currently second bottom of the ten-team Elite League, would be seeded second in the play-offs as they lead the Gardiner Conference.

Simms though pointed the finger at one team who he thinks is the reason why the Conference has been so close this season.

"For me, I think the reason it's so tight has been because of the dreadful job Braehead Clan have done, as they were hotly tipped to win it comfortably," he explains.

"If they'd got their act together right at the start, the Clan would have won the Conference by 10 or 12 points and been challenging at the top of the table.

"They've made a poor job in recruitment, such as not replacing the experienced defenders from last season properly.

"Plus there was the situation with Jordan Krestanovich, who left after Paul Gardner came in then returned. You can't have the best of both worlds and I felt he shouldn't have returned.

"It's really opened the door for Edinburgh Capitals, Dundee Stars and Fife Flyers."

Although the season is coming to an end, we're no further forward in finding out just who will qualify for the play-offs, let along win the Gardiner Conference.

Given Simms' reputation for being outspoken and causing debate, even he was stumped when the question about who might win it was put to him.

He said: "I've absolutely no idea. As someone who's got an opinion about everything and not frightened to give one, I honestly don't know.

"I get the feeling the best team in that Conference is Edinburgh Capitals but I just wonder if they've run out of games to win the group.

"They'll finish in the top eight, but my worry is if Hull win the Conference, but finish in the bottom two, eighth place might not be enough.

"The Caps are playing the best hockey and are keeping the very best teams close and bringing in Curtis Leinweber has been great for them.

"Dundee are picking up again and that's alongside a resurgence in form for their netminder Nic Riopel, who had a slump in form.

"The team that worries me right now is Braehead. They can't buy a win right now."

In the Elite League's ten years, one thing that has never happened has been a Scottish team reaching the finals weekend where the last four battle it out.

In the last two seasons, Braehead Clan and Dundee Stars have reached the quarter-finals, but haven't progressed to that grand finale in Nottingham.

Simms believes there is every chance that the new set-up will allow a team from north of the border to take part in the showcase event, which takes place in April.

"I think the EIHL board have made it more probable than possible for a Scottish team to reach the finals weekend," he said.

"So unless Hull win the Gardiner Conference, it's more than likely we'll see a Scottish team in the final four.

"I think it would be a good thing. Whether it devalues the final-four weekend would remain to be seen. We should embrace it and it would be great for Scottish ice hockey."

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