Following one of the most unique regular-seasons in Elite League history, the 2021-22 Playoff Finals Weekend offers a return to normality. We’re down to the final four: six clubs have been eliminated from contention, leaving the Belfast Giants, Cardiff Devils, Guildford Flames, and Dundee Stars scrapping it out for postseason success.
After scooping the regular-season league and cup double, the Giants are in pole position heading into final four weekend. Adam Keefe’s side ended the campaign on a high, seeing off the Sheffield Steelers to punch their ticket to the 2022-23 Champions Hockey League.
It’s still impossible to tell whether the Devils will be contenders or pretenders at Playoff Finals Weekend. They finished 14 points back of Belfast in the title race and mysteriously parted company with head coach Jarrod Skalde in the final week of the regular-season.
In Flames Nation, there’s no such upheaval. Paul Dixon’s reign behind the bench in Guildford looks as strong as ever following Guildford’s upset of the Nottingham Panthers in the quarter-finals. They’re not travelling to the Motorpoint Arena to make up the numbers: they might just win it all.
Finally: Dundee. Omar Pacha’s Stars stunned the Sheffield Steelers in the last eight, opening the door to Cinderella run at the 2021-22 Playoff Finals Weekend. Charlie Combs is on fire, but are defences suitably terrified?
With all of that in mind, let’s dig into a quartet of pre-final four talking points. There’s plenty to discuss.
How Far Will the Dundee Stars Go At the 2021-22 Playoff Finals Weekend?
It’s important to contextualise Dundee’s seventh-place finish in the Elite League: they were only two points back of fourth. Pacha’s squad finished the campaign with a respectable 25-26-3 record, just shy of the magic .500 mark.
Also of note: the Stars’ roster is dripping in quality. Sebastian Bengtsson is quite the player, while aggressive defenceman Kyle Haas adds another element to the mix. Brython Preece, the team’s backup goalie, also deserves tonnes of credit for holding the fort in Adam Morrison’s absence.
In other words, the Stars aren’t exactly slouches. They performed excellently against the Steelers in the previous round and could pull off another upset or two at the 2021-22 Playoff Finals Weekend.
When asked if Dundee should be confident about facing off with the Giants in an all-or-nothing match on neutral ice, Pacha said: “We should be. The reality is, it is going to be a tough challenge and Belfast are the league champions for a reason and if you want to do anything or win anything then you have to go through them. So, we will certainly do our best.”
Since 1 April, the Stars are 8-2-1. Don’t write them off.
Will the Belfast Giants Claim the First EIHL Triple Crown Since 2012-13?
Place yourself in Keefe’s shoes and imagine hearing this sentence: “Belfast Giants: Grand Slam Winners.” It’d sound pretty good, right?
It’s been a while since a team dominated the Elite League’s three competitions: the 2012-13 Nottingham Panthers were the last squad to win the league, cup, and playoffs in the same year. There’s also an interesting factoid to add. Keefe was on the ice when the Panthers secured their triple crown, he captained Belfast to a painful 3-2 loss in the playoff final.
With that in mind, imagine how sweet it would be for the Canadian to guide his club to the summit. And there’s a strong possibility he will.
Throughout the regular-season, the Giants proved their class. They saw off stiff competition to secure the league title, ending the campaign 9-0-1. Scott Conway and J.J. Piccinich, the club’s offensive stars, also enjoyed individual success, finishing the point-scoring race miles clear of the field.
Keefe was even able to put a cherry on top of a dreamlike regular-season by handing first-team minutes to prospects Mack Stewart and Carter Hamill.
There’s no doubting Belfast’s quality – but it’s worth remembering just how close they were to a stunning quarter-final exit versus the Coventry Blaze. The Giants were only a C.J. Motte save away from missing out on the 2021-22 Playoff Finals Weekend altogether.
𝗖𝗹𝘂𝘁𝗰𝗵 𝗺𝗼𝗺𝗲𝗻𝘁 🔥
JJ Piccinich scored the winning shootout goal as the @BelfastGiants defeated Coventry Blaze to make it to the Playoff Finals Weekend! 🙌
— Premier Sports (@PremierSportsTV) April 28, 2022
However, Keefe isn’t naïve to the fact that the quarters didn’t go to plan for his side.
“At the end of the day, we weren’t completely happy with our weekend as a whole,” he said last at SSE Arena last week. “I have to take full responsibility for that in terms of the preparation leading up the week: we’re going to have to change some things to make sure we have some more urgency and identity for final four weekend.”
Will Jamal Watson Guide the Guildford Flames to Postseason Glory?
It’s difficult to overstate Jamal Watson’s importance to the Flames. The 27-year-old defenceman registered 51 points (14 goals, 37 assists) in 54 appearances for Guildford this term, a league-leading clip amongst EIHL blueliners.
Watson, a right-shooting Canadian, only transitioned to playing defence during his collegiate career. He’s relatively new to the position – but it certainly doesn’t show.
“The switch to D happened a couple of years ago,” he explained back in January. “Some defencemen on my university teams got hurt, I stepped in, played well, and just felt comfortable back there. So, I decided to take on the role.”
On his point-getting acumen, Watson added: “I know things that forwards like to do, I know how tough it is when defencemen jump in the rush – forwards don’t want to backcheck against that. I’m just trying to bring my A-Game, playing in the defensive zone hard and then just taking on those offensive instincts I built up over the years.”
Although Watson is Guildford’s player to watch at Playoff Finals Weekend, Dixon has plenty of high-quality players on his roster with big-game experience.
Before the quarter-finals, BIH identified Robert Lachowicz as someone under pressure to deliver following a so-so regular-season. He held up his side of the bargain versus Nottingham, playing a defensively responsible style to help his team over the line. He’ll need to deliver more of the same in the semi-finals if the Flames are to upset Cardiff.
Cardiff Devils: Time To Shine, Mac Carruth?
In a slightly odd turn of events, we head into the 2021-22 Playoff Finals Weekend safe in the knowledge that Mac Carruth will not be suiting up for the Devils next year. His transfer to Danish club Herning Blue Fox was announced earlier this month. However, the American is keen to finish on a high with Cardiff.
His record in the Elite League is impressive: he ended the regular-season with a .937 save percentage and a 2.16 goals-against average through 41 appearances. He also stepped up for the Devils in the quarter-finals, shutting out the Glasgow Clan in leg two to guide his team into the final four.
If he signs off as Cardiff’s starting netminder with a playoff title, the club’s fans will be delighted.
Up front, the Devils’ line to watch is Brodie Reid//Stephen Dixon//Justin Crandall. Brodie Dupont’s top unit was kept off the scoresheet in the quarter-finals and will be keen to make an impact versus Guildford.
Matt Register is also worth keeping an eye on in defence. The 6-foot-2 blueliner soaks up serious minutes for Cardiff and enters Playoff Finals Weekend with two points in postseason play.
For the Devils, the task is simple: win two more games and they can forget about regular-season disappointment. That’s easier said than done, though.
2021-22 Playoff Finals Weekend Schedule
Semi-Finals – Saturday, 30 April 2022:
Belfast Giants (1) v (7) Dundee Stars, 15:00
Cardiff Devils (3) v (5) Guildford Flames, 19:00
Finals – Sunday, 1 May 2022:
Third-Place Playoff, 13:00
Playoff Final, 17:00
The 2021-22 Playoff Finals Weekend will be broadcast exclusively on Premier Sports.