Well, that was dramatic. Grand Slam Watch quickly turned into Playoff Threepeat Frenzy in the Elite League, with the Cardiff Devils crowned postseason champions for the third time in a row.
Cardiff’s upset of the Belfast Giants in the grand finale crystallised a wild month for the franchise from Wales. Just weeks after parting company with former head coach Jarrod Skalde, the Devils tasted victory champagne under the direction of Brodie Dupont – a rookie behind the bench.
“I’m so proud of the guys for not breaking and sticking with the game plan,” the 35-year-old told British Ice Hockey at the Motorpoint Arena. “What a win: this is just the best feeling in the world right now.”
😈 @cardiffdevils get their hands on the trophy! 🏆
Premier Sports Elite League champions after a 6-3 win over Belfast Giants 👏 pic.twitter.com/PAXDoGCDPS
— Premier Sports (@PremierSportsTV) May 1, 2022
For Belfast, defeat in the playoff final ended Adam Keefe’s dreams of becoming the first coach to clinch the EIHL’s triple crown since Corey Neilson led the Nottingham Panthers to the promised land a decade ago.
There was plenty of action to contend with off the ice, too.
Following their 7-5 loss in the Bronze-Medal Game, the Dundee Stars announced the departure of head coach-general manager Omar Pacha – who has agreed terms to become the CEO of “one of the top clubs in the country.”
Pacha’s departure was announced at 20:30 on Sunday [1 May]. At 08:00 on Monday [2 May], the Nottingham Panthers revealed that they had “parted ways” with Gui Doucet – their director of hockey operations. Connected? Perhaps.
For the final time of 2021-22, let’s dig into Elite League Takeaways – featuring exclusive quotes from across Playoff Finals Weekend.
Brodie Dupont: Devils Believed in Championship Potential
Cardiff overcame bucketloads of adversity on their way to playoff success: they played most of the year with a depleted defensive corps and faced managerial upheaval during the final week of the regular-season.
Also of note: 2021-22 was billed as a transition year for the Devils, considering Andrew Lord’s departure as head coach. But that didn’t knock the organisation’s confidence.
“The whole year, we believed that we deserved to win some type of trophy,” Dupont said as his team celebrated on the ice. “Losing the final of the Challenge Cup stung and we just wanted to redeem ourselves today. Belfast gave us a good run: in the first period, I felt like it was all them. I’m just so proud of the guys.”
Amid jubilant scenes at the Motorpoint Arena, the Devils were keen to pump the tyres of their interim head coach.
Josh Waller hailed Dupont’s influence post-game: “He’s been massive. He’s come in, done a tremendous job, and got all of the boys on the same page. It’s obviously not an easy thing to do – to take over at the end of the year with a playoff push – but he’s done an unbelievable job and it’s paid off tonight.”
Cole Sandford, who found twine less than two minutes into the final, added: “I think he’s been great. He was in a tough spot: it’s not easy to step in halfway through or at the end of the season like that. He had quite the season for us: playing at the start, taking over as assistant, and then stepping in as head coach.
“The proof’s in the pudding – look at our defensive zone: we bent but we didn’t break. Brody deserves a lot of credit.”
Although the Devils have plenty of decisions to make in the summer, the club’s focus – for now at least – is rightly on celebrating a historic playoff threepeat. If you didn’t watch the match live, this is how Cardiff’s players honoured their win. Keep an eye on Mac Carruth’s helmet:
🚨 FINAL BUZZER SCENES 🚨
— Luke James (@LukeJames_32) May 1, 2022
It was the perfect weekend for the Devils. They came through a tense, nervy final few minutes to beat the Guildford Flames in the semi-final and put their Challenge Cup demons to bed on Sunday. Their longevity is remarkable.
Charlie Combs on Omar Pacha: ‘I love the guy’
Several hours before Pacha’s departure was announced, Charlie Combs – Dundee’s star forward – professed his admiration for the Canadian.
“I didn’t come into this season expecting to be towards the top of the scoring chart,” the diminutive forward explained. “He [Omar Pacha] just kind of let me play my game and he just knows me as a person, which has really helped.
“He took a chance on me and the only thing I could do is make him look better by performing for him. I’m so grateful for Omar and everything he’s done for me. I love the guy.”
British Ice Hockey’s interview with Combs was heartfelt, he added: “I love every single guy in the locker room, I love your training staff, I love our coach. It’s obviously very emotional knowing that we’re not going to be at work next week. At the end of the day, we’re proud of each other and what we accomplished was pretty cool.”
Of his departure, Pacha said: “I can’t thank everyone at the club enough, they have been great since I arrived and it was not an easy decision to leave. The support of the fans has been incredible and I have had the opportunity to work with a number of great players.”
He leaves an impressive legacy of solid recruitment and eye-catching player development in Dundee, with Combs being a prime example. Pacha identified untapped potential in a 5-foot-6 forward who put up steady numbers in the NCAA and turned him into an Elite League superstar.
It’s no wonder Pacha was subject to interest from around the EIHL – and he’ll prove a popular appointment in his next city as a result.
Nottingham Panthers: Gui Doucet Era is Done
As previously reported, the mood in Nottingham was foul this season – especially in the days after Tim Wallace’s dismissal as head coach. It’s, therefore, unsurprising that the Panthers ditched Doucet and have opted for an off-season rebuild.
Don’t be mistaken: the months ahead will shape the Panthers’ fortunes in 2022-23. They head into next season as the Elite League’s fourth-best club, unable to keep pace with Belfast, Cardiff, and the Sheffield Steelers.
They must improve next year – and that process starts by hiring experienced coaches and managers to run the club. If (as we all expect) Pacha is appointed to lead the Panthers, it’d be a solid point to begin from.
Playoff Finals Weekend Observations: Belfast Giants and Guildford Flames
Let’s start with a brief word on the Giants, who should be congratulated for a terrific regular-season. Keefe’s squad approached the Playoff Final as the favourites with a Grand Slam on the line – and fell agonizingly short.
Belfast couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start, conceding so early evidently knocked them off their stride. But they fought back, overturned a two-goal deficit, and really took the game to Cardiff.
It wasn’t enough though. Cardiff executed their game plan to a tee, throwing their weight around and clogging up the neutral zone expertly in the closing stages. Keefe’s Giants just couldn’t quite conquer the mountain. They’ll go again.
Is Paul Dixon Underrated?
Also: a quick word on Paul Dixon and his Flames.
Dixon, in his 14th year behind Guildford’s bench, is extraordinarily underrated by fans across the Elite League. If not for a late power play goal, the Flames would’ve taken Cardiff to overtime in their playoff semi-final – and deservedly so.
There are two striking facts to bear in mind about the Flames: they’re well-coached and absolute mentality monsters. They battled back into contests time and time again during the playoffs, following Dixon’s instructions with skill, dedication, and bravery.
After his team’s loss to Cardiff, Dixon said: “I don’t think there’s anything else we could’ve done tonight besides scoring a power play goal. They left it all out there, just like we did against Nottingham last Sunday. That’s pretty much it.
“Cardiff’s power play has been deadly all year and that’s the game-winning goal tonight. They go through with their power play and we didn’t capitalise on ours. That’s how it is.
“But I couldn’t ask for any more at five-on-five. I’m proud of the guys that I’ve got in that room: we couldn’t have done anything else differently.”
If the Flames keep hold of their top-performers next season, they’ll be a force once again.
Elsewhere in the Elite League:
Sheffield’s decision to re-sign Sam Jones to a two-year contract was wise. He was ever-present for the Steelers in 2021-22, registering 20 points in 54 league appearances.
“Sam has grown into an outstanding two-way defenseman and at his age we still feel like he still can take his game to another level,” head coach Aaron Fox explained.
As the Giants proved with Scott Conway this year, title-winning teams are built on strong homegrown cores. It was a no-brainer for Sheffield to keep 24-year-old Jones on their roster for next season.
There was also a major announcement from the Manchester Storm, who promoted Ryan Finnerty to become their full-time general manager.
“I feel like this is the right time for me to step away from the bench – all coaches within any league have a shelf-life and it’s a decision that will better our wonderful club,” explained Finnerty. “It is the perfect time for somebody else to take up the reigns and negotiations for this position are already underway.
“The dual role of head coach and general manager has been taxing, particularly in recent times, and I am confident in my decision to fully focus on expanding our off-ice positions. I am excited about the challenge my new role brings and feel strongly about our chances of accomplishing great things with a freshly built roster next season.”
Don’t be mistaken: an exciting off-season awaits Elite League fans.
Will Cardiff extend their playoff threepeat into a four-year run? Join the discussion by tweeting @BritIceHockey.