Giants, Devils, Flames, Stars Punch Tickets to 2021-22 Playoff Finals Weekend

Sebastian Bengtsson of the Dundee Stars celebrates qualifying for 2021-22 Playoff Finals Weekend (Image: Derek Black)
Sebastian Bengtsson of the Dundee Stars celebrates qualifying for 2021-22 Playoff Finals Weekend (Image: Derek Black)

After a weekend of shock and awe, four teams remain in the hunt for postseason supremacy in the Elite League. The bracket is set for the 2021-22 Playoff Finals Weekend, with the Belfast Giants, Cardiff Devils, Guildford Flames, and Dundee Stars advancing to the semi-finals.

Conspicuous in their absence, the Sheffield Steelers are out: eliminated by the Stars courtesy of a 5-3 aggregate loss. Down the M1, the Nottingham Panthers were eliminated too – upset by Guildford in a thrilling series. Recriminations will continue long into the summer in both cities.

Elsewhere, the Coventry Blaze and Glasgow Clan also saw their seasons extinguished at the quarter-final stage – though both squads should hold their heads high for being within touching distance of upsets of their own.

For the penultimate time of 2021-22, let’s get into Elite League Takeaways. There’s lots to discuss.

Sheffield Steelers Eliminated by Excellent Dundee Stars

It wasn’t meant to end this way for the Steelers, but Omar Pacha’s Stars couldn’t care less about that.

Dundee performed tremendously throughout the quarter-finals and were deserving winners. They started the weekend brightly, winning 1-0 on home ice to set up a nail-bitter of a second leg in Sheffield.

However, the series unravelled for the Stars on Sunday [24 March]. Less than a minute into the second period, the Steelers led 3-0 on the night and 3-1 on aggregate. From there, the Stars had a mountain to climb. And they climbed it. Kalvis Ozols made it a one-goal series with 37:51 on the clock, before Sebastian Bengtsson rattled in an eight-minute hattrick in the final period to turn the contest on its head.

Jubilation for Dundee. Abjection for Sheffield.

Omar Pacha: ‘It’s the best feeling I’ve ever had’

“It’s unbelievable, the guys’ effort tonight was second to none,” Pacha said following his team’s victory on Sunday. “I’m so proud of them. We fought too much this year just to settle [at 3-1 down], that’s our character: we thrive on adversity. It’s a great night, I’m sure the guys will enjoy it.”

After bagging four assists during the quarter-finals, Charlie Combs will certainly savour his team’s advance to the 2021-22 Playoff Finals Weekend. He was excellent against Sheffield and will be a player to watch in the final four. In the meanwhile, though, the Stars are simply living in the moment.

“There’s no words,” Pacha explained, “it’s the best feeling I’ve ever had and I’m sure the players can say the same. The support has been fantastic tonight, they’re the reason we won [and] I really appreciate it.”

Aaron Fox: ‘You’ve got to play 60 minutes and tonight we played 52’

Sheffield’s season is over, they end 2021-22 trophyless, and their head coach isn’t happy about it.

“It’s a results-based business and we didn’t get the result this weekend,” a downbeat Fox explained on Sunday.  “We got off to a good start tonight, went up 3-0, and then a little discipline and details cost us that hockey game late. You’ve got to play 60 minutes [and] tonight we played 52.”

2021-22 Playoff Finals Weekend
Aaron Fox’s Sheffield Steelers will not be appearing at the 2021-22 Playoff Finals Weekend (Image: Dean Woolley)

It’s impossible to skirt around the fact that the Steelers crumbled in the second leg: they blew a 3-1 lead in the final eight minutes of play. That’s a disastrous outcome for a team built to contend for silverware.

In Sheffield, there’s only one question worth mulling over this summer: how will the Steelers bounce back next year?

Cardiff Devils Fight Back Against Glasgow Clan

Unlike the Steelers, Brodie Dupont’s Devils had no trouble winning from behind in the second leg of their quarter-final tie. Cardiff entered Sunday with a 4-3 deficit to overturn – and just about managed it.

Mac Carruth, as he often has this season, came in clutch for the Devils in leg two, completing a 26-save shutout. Cardiff’s special team units also played a key role: they were perfect on the power play and penalty kill on Sunday.

In the end, it was a pair of third-period goals that sealed the series for Dupont’s side and eliminated Glasgow. Fine margins were the difference.

Brodie Dupont: ‘We’re more than happy with the result’

Following Sheffield’s elimination and Cardiff’s advance, the 2021-22 Playoff Finals Weekend bracket is wide open. Although the Giants will travel to Nottingham as favourites, the Devils are also in a strong position.

“We knew it was going to be hard, Glasgow is a good club, and we knew they were going to come out hard and had skill to put the puck away,” Dupont said on Sunday. “They came down to Cardiff and gave us a really hard time, every turnover [it] seemed like they could capitalise on it [so] we’re more than happy [with the result].”

After completing a comeback to reach the final four, Cardiff head to the final four with a spring in their step. How far will they go?

Malcolm Cameron: ‘You don’t always get what you deserve’

“It’s tough, there’s not much I can say to make the guys feel better,” Cameron explained following his team’s elimination. “They played unbelievably; they gave every ounce of energy.”

Unfortunately for the Clan, they didn’t have quite enough left in the tank on Sunday – but it wasn’t for the want of trying. Glasgow defended stoutly, limiting Cardiff to just two shots from the high slot, and attacked with their usual zip. It just wasn’t quite enough.

“We had some good scoring chances, we put a lot of pressure on them and created lots of battles in front of their net, but the puck just wouldn’t go in. Over the last 48 hours we deserved better, but you don’t always get what you deserve.”

Belfast Giants Knockout Coventry Blaze With Shootout Drama

With the Giants’ season on his stick, J.J. Piccinich didn’t flinch. The American raced into the offensive zone, stuttered as he approached C.J. Motte’s crease, and fired the puck into the net to send SSE Arena into raptures and Belfast to the 2021-22 Playoff Finals Weekend.

In stark contrast to the emotions felt by those clad in teal, despair swept over Coventry’s bench. After hanging with the Elite League’s best team for six periods of regulation and one period of overtime, the Blaze were eliminated from the playoffs by a peculiar evil: the postseason penalty shootout.

Agony for Coventry; relief for Belfast.

Adam Keefe: ‘We weren’t completely happy with our weekend as a whole’

Considering the Giants’ grand slam aspirations, that was a mightily close call. Hockey is an incredibly random sport, one often decided by rogue bounces and puck luck. Shootouts are even less predictable. It’s, therefore, no surprise that Belfast head coach Adam Keefe wasn’t best pleased on Sunday.

“I felt like I lost a year of my life there tonight,” Keefe said after his side’s shootout win. “But, at the end of the day, we weren’t completely happy with our weekend as a whole. That being said, we are moving onto Nottingham [and] we do want to learn some lessons from this weekend and look at our preparation.

Belfast Giants head coach Adam Keefe celebrates winning the 2021-22 Elite League title (Image: Dean Woolley)
Belfast Giants head coach Adam Keefe is aiming to complete a grand slam at the 2021-22 Playoff Finals Weekend (Image: Dean Woolley)

“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.”

After their quarter-final scare, how will Belfast respond at the 2021-22 Playoff Finals Weekend?

Danny Stewart: ‘To lose in a shootout is just shit’

“I’m very proud of every guy in [the locker room],” Blaze head coach Danny Stewart said on Sunday. “Before the weekend, we had a really good week of talks: we demanded buy-in and we got that. Coaches can talk structure all they want, but at the end of the day it’s eighteen guys going to war for one another, and I felt like our group did. I’m gutted for them.”

It was a case of ‘so close, yet so far’ for Coventry in the quarter-finals. They put up an admirable fight against the league champions but couldn’t quite separate themselves from the Giants.

Janne Laakkonen’s second leg absence was a blow for the Blaze, albeit one they almost collectively overcame.

Although he won’t admit it, Stewart’s system was key to his side’s ability to bounce back from a disappointing final month of the season.

“We all know as a group that we let ourselves down over the last two or three weeks but for those guys to pick themselves up and play six periods plus against the best team in the league is admirable and I couldn’t be prouder of the guys,” the Canadian explained.

“To lose in a shootout is just shit. That’s not me being bitter or anything like that, I think the Giants would say the same thing as winners that they’d like to see an overtime format where the players decide it rather than a shootout format.”

Is it time for the Elite League to uniformly introduce continuous overtime in the playoffs?

Guildford Flames Capitalise on Nottingham Panthers’ Capitulation

Paul Dixon’s Flames punched their ticket to the 2021-22 Playoff Finals Weekend despite only leading their quarter-final series for two minutes and 49 seconds. Such was the impact of Levi Cable’s late winner on Sunday night.

Cable’s strike ended a miserable season for the Panthers, who threw away a 6-5 lead in the final five minutes of the second leg. Is it time for another rebuild in Nottingham?

Paul Dixon: ‘It’s a great result for our team’

“We just had to keep getting pucks to the net and believing,” Dixon said on Sunday. “I tip my hat to [the players]: we never gave up, we kept on going, and got the two goals.”

Eliminating the Panthers was a significant statement of intent from Guildford because it proved they can compete for silverware. Remember, the Flames started the season excellently and were briefly involved in the title race before their form turned south through December and January. Perhaps they’re the real deal after all?

Paul Dixon, Guildford Flames (Image: Scott Wiggins)
Will Paul Dixon of the Guildford Flames end the 2021-22 Playoff Finals Weekend as an Elite League champion? (Image: Scott Wiggins)

“We knew the momentum was probably back in Nottingham’s favour before we started tonight and there were times when they had a lot of pressure,” Dixon explained. “When we had those back-to-back power plays at the beginning of the third period, I wondered if that was the moment we would look back on and regret but they kept on going right until the end and we know it’s a 60-minute game. It’s a great result for our team.”

Mark Matheson: ‘It’s tough to put into words right now’

It’s over for the Panthers: they’re eliminated from contention and won’t be participating in the 2021-22 Playoff Finals Weekend. Damningly for an organisation that should be competing for silverware, their postseason exit wasn’t a shock. It was widely predicted.

“It’s just a tough one when you’re ahead,” interim head coach Mark Matheson explained. “Credit to them: they put the pressure on. It’s just a matter of weathering the storm and we didn’t do a great job of it at times. It’s just tough to put into words right now.”

Sunday’s loss concludes another wasted season for Nottingham.

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.

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