Play-off race heads into final furlong

(PHOTOS: Scott Wiggins/Panthers Images)

We’re getting into the business end of the season and each and every player will be giving their all in the final weeks to make sure they finish with a flourish.

While Belfast Giants and Cardiff Devils jockey for position at the top of the table and those underneath are out to try and finish as high as they can, there’s a fascinating battle near the bottom of the table that is every bit as absorbing.

Sheffield Steelers, Manchester Storm, Dundee Stars and Coventry Blaze look like the four battling for the last two spots, which may be whittled down to two or three in the coming weeks

Eighth place can make the difference between a good and a bad season and as the weeks and games move forward, it looks like the final two places will be contested by four teams.

When you consider that two of those teams were top three clubs last season, it makes it all the more interesting as we look at the paths of the four teams heavily involved in that fight and assess who will make it and who won’t:

Manchester and Sheffield are on the right side of the play-off line (PHOTO: Mark Ferriss)

SHEFFIELD STEELERS (Current position: 7th)

The Steelers are in the best position as things stand, but the one concern is they’ve played more games than the other three, with Coventry Blaze having as many as four games in hand.

They started poorly and have never properly recovered, but should have enough about them to make it, but seeing other results go their way may be their best hope in these final weeks.

Tom Barrasso has battled hard to improve their fortunes and having 55 points in the bag – five points away from Dundee Stars in ninth – puts them in a favourable position when you weigh up the remaining fixtures, but it won’t be without its worries.

To see Steelers tumble out of contention would be arguably one of the biggest shocks in the league, but experienced campaigners such as Jonathan Phillips and Robert Dowd won’t let it happen.

REMAINING FIXTURES:

Sat 09 Mar: vs Fife Flyers (h)

Sun 10 Mar: vs Fife Flyers (a)

Sat 16 Mar: vs Cardiff Devils (h)

Sat 23 Mar: vs MK Lightning (h)

Sun 24 Mar: vs Belfast Giants (a)

Sun 31 Mar: vs MK Lightning (a)

MANCHESTER STORM (Current position: 8th)

Storm are in a similar possible to Steelers in terms of the number of games left compared with the teams below, so their play-off destiny could be equally as fraught.

They finished second last season, but haven’t been able to find the sort of form that made them so good 12 months ago and a very different kind of battle is on for them.

Of the four teams in this particular tussle, Storm will sit out the final night of regular season action as the odd team out so they’ll want to get their place settled early to avoid a night of unbelievable tension.

They have been picking up results, but their last three wins have been at home and winning on Sunday in Dundee would settle a lot of nerves early on.

If they don’t, the final game at home to Coventry could be one to watch as things get settled. There’s work to do, but Storm have it in their own hands.

REMAINING FIXTURES:

Sun 10 Mar: vs Dundee Stars (a)

Sat 16 Mar: vs Nottingham Panthers (a)

Sun 17 Mar: vs MK Lightning (h)

Fri 22 Mar: vs Belfast Giants (h)

Sat 23 Mar: vs Cardiff Devils (a)

Fri 29 Mar: vs MK Lightning (a)

Sat 30 Mar: vs Coventry Blaze (h)

Dundee and Coventry will meet again before the end of the regular season (PHOTO: Derek Black)

DUNDEE STARS (Current position: 9th)

Oh, how they needed that victory on Sunday! Dundee Stars’ win over Coventry on Sunday was vital for their hopes, especially after losing to Manchester the night before.

Now, they’re knocking on the door of the top eight and sit a point behind the Storm with two more games to play than them, but of their remaining nine matches, only three are at home.

Stars have been a streaky team, where they can win five in a row then lose five in a row and had they not picked up a batch of single points in game they lost in overtime and penalty shots, they could have been way behind in this particular race.

The road is a tough one for Omar Pacha and his team and defeats in their two games this weekend at Nottingham then at home to Manchester could make things tricky going fown the stretch.

REMAINING FIXTURES:

Sat 09 Mar: vs Nottingham Panthers (a)

Sun 10 Mar: vs Manchester Storm (h)

Fri 15 Mar: vs Glasgow Clan (a)

Sat 16 Mar: vs Guildford Flames (a)

Sun 17 Mar: vs Nottingham Panthers (a)

Wed 20 Mar: vs Coventry Blaze (h)

Sun 24 Mar: vs Cardiff Devils (h)

Sat 30 Mar: vs Belfast Giants (a)

Sun 31 Mar: vs Guildford Flames (a)

COVENTRY BLAZE (Current position: 10th)

With 10 games to go in the final three weeks or so, this will be a massive test for Danny Stewart and his men to get over the line, if they are to reach the play-offs for a second straight year.

The remaining games they have will make you flinch at the sight of three clashes with Belfast Giants and one with Cardiff Devils to come.

But if they can start with four points in this weekend’s games with Milton Keynes, then it could lay the foundation for one big push, although their next two games are in Northern Ireland.

For Coventry to miss out twice in three years, it may lead to an interesting summer and bearing in mind, they just made it and no more last year, the pressure is on for a team who won the play-offs as recently as 2015.

REMAINING FIXTURES:

Sat 09 Mar: vs MK Lightning (a)

Sun 10 Mar: vs MK Lightning (h)

Fri 15 Mar: vs Belfast Giants (a)

Sat 16 Mar: vs Belfast Giants (a)

Sun 17 Mar: vs Fife Flyers (h)

Wed 20 Mar: vs Dundee Stars (a)

Sat 24 Mar: vs Guildford Flames (a)

Tue 27 Mar: vs Belfast Giants (h)

Sat 30 Mar: vs Manchester Storm (a)

Sun 31 Mar: vs Cardiff Devils (h)

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