Braehead Clan's title - the talk, the pressure & the ultimate goal
Three words now being uttered by coaches, players and observers around the EIHL as the 2015-16 home straight starts to come into view.
Three simple words, but still capable of applying pressure strong enough to crush a piece of granite.
The thinking is simple.
The league is effectively a three-horse race. Clan sit third top but with games in hand and, crucially, a run-in that is perceived as being the easiest of them all.
Ryan Finnerty’s side trail leaders Cardiff by five points with four games in hand, and second placed Sheffield by one point with two in hand.
You can do the maths, but the numbers are only just part of the equation because winning titles isn’t easy.
How teams handle the pressure that intensifies with every game during the run-in is key. Some thrive and retain a steely focus on the prize at the end, but other equally great teams can buckle.
The more folk round the league start to talk in terms of ‘’Braehead’s title’’, the tighter the doors to Clan’s dressing-room have to be sealed, sound-proofed and oblivious to the chat.
They were here exactly one year ago and just couldn’t get over the line. It’d be horrible to see history repeat itself.
Clan have come a remarkable way in a short period of time, and their progress from newcomers to challengers and now, potential champions, is a tribute to the team’s commitment - on and off the ice.
To bring the title to Scotland can only be good for the game north of the border - although if that happens, it wouldn’t surprise anyone to see the ‘easier’ conference tinkered with!
Can they do it? Well, Clan have what is generally regarded as the easiest run in of the three challengers. They have 17 games to play with 13 of them against their Gardiner Conference rivals Fife, Dundee, Manchester and Edinburgh.
That, argue their challengers, is preferable to going head to head with the big guns in the Erhardt Conference.
Easy games? It’ll be interesting to see how that perception holds up as Clan face four match-ups with Fife Flyers.
The east-west head to heads may have lost some of their reputation for hockey on the edge, but they remain close affairs. Six meetings so far have produced three wins apiece, and, interestingly, Flyers have won three of the last four. All on home ice admittedly, but if Todd Dutiaume’s side maintains those returns then the wins would not only damage Braehead’s hopes, but would bolster their own conference aspirations - and after a season which has failed to fully ignite, Fife need to find a way of finishing on a high note.
Clan also face Dundee Stars twice - a side sitting comfortably mid-table and enjoying its hockey.
Marc Lefebvre has moulded a solid team which is a huge improvement on last season’s Stars.
They aren’t the easiest of opponents, and the Scottish rivalry adds an extra dimension to these match-ups.
The smart money would be on a title-chasing Clan to keep the momentum going with a clean sweep of the points, but these games easily fall into the ‘banana skin’ category.
Clan will certainly look for maximum points in their three games against a shattered looking Edinburgh which sadly seems destined to miss out on the play-offs - its early season sparkle all but dimmed.
But regardless of who they play - and sometimes when shooting for silverware you’d rather have those consistent, high tempo head to heads against the very best to maintain your sharpness - they need to plot a steady path through the weekends ahead to take the glory people say has their name on it.
One false move, as Springsteen sang, and babe, the lights go out ...
The talk of Clan’s title is, of course all part of the psychological warfare now being drip fed into post-game interviews and day to day chat.
It worked last time round as Sheffield raced past them at the finishing line.
Paul Thomson’s side have 14 games to go, four against Gardiner opposition. They also have five meetings with Coventry - a side yet to catch fire, but one which has still managed two wins over Paul Thomson’s team. That’s two more than some have managed.
And as for Cardiff, their run-in is certainly tough, but there is the unknown factor of moving into their brand new home to consider.
The Big Blue Tent is near impenetrable. Add in the ‘wow’ factor of a new home, and a roster that bristles with strength and skill, guile and grit, and Devils might yet have the final say.
They have 13 games left, ten of them against Erhardt opposition - three each against Nottingham and Belfast.
What better way would there be to say farewell to their traditional home than with a championship banner flying from its roof?
Three challengers, one title - and eight weeks to determine its destination.,
It’s going to be a fascinating countdown...