Ashley Tait, Blaze Captain and long time player, has lifted the play off trophy with the team no less than three times. The first was in 2002/3 in the BNL against Cardiff Devils, the second time in 2004/5 as part of the Grand Slam season, where Blaze beat Nottingham Panthers in an agonizingly tight game which went into sudden death overtime tied at 1-1. With just over three minutes into extra time, Tait raced in on goal and scored the game winner. Most recently was last season where Blaze beat Sheffield Steelers, the then reigning play off Champions.
Having won the play trophy three times with the Blaze, I asked how it felt to win each time. Tait said, “It’s weird, the first one is obviously special, and the next one with Coventry, our first in the Elite League era, was to make it the grand slam, so that was very special. Last year was pretty unexpected to be fair, we beat the first, fourth and fifth seeds along the way, so it was special but for very different reasons.”
With so many games to play each year, I wondered how well Tait remembered the games leading to the play off title. He said, “Last year I remember well – the Nottingham series in particular. We played really well in the first game there and came back tied at 3-3. I was lucky enough to get a goal in the return game. I remember it was an absolute defensive onslaught, we couldn’t get out of their end but everybody held firm and we came good. I think that win went a long way towards getting us the steel we needed to get through the semis with Belfast which went to penalty shots and the final.”
When it comes to preparation, the play off games have a very different feel to regular league games. It really is a case of winner takes all, with only four games between you and the trophy. Tait explained, “As an individual you have to put it all on the line and leave nothing in the dressing room. It’s all about the bigger picture which is winning. It’s all about your team mates, being willing to go through that wall and pay the price.”
While individual players have their own ways of preparing for the games, the most important thing is that the team is ready for the challenge. First they focus on the two leg quarter final, which is an alien concept to some of the import players. Tait continued, “As a team the preparation this week will be solely based on a two game series. It’s always a little bit difficult, having the mindset to play two games, because it’s an aggregate score over the two legs. That’s a foreign concept to a lot of the guys when it’s their first time playing over here. I’ve been involved in two legs where you hold a decent lead going in, and it’s very difficult mentally to go in with a two or three goal lead. It’s just human nature that you know you are in the lead, that you are winning, and it doesn’t help. You’ve got to have the mindset it’s a fresh start and it’s 0-0, regardless of what the actual score the night before was.”
With it being confirmed that we face Sheffield in the quarter finals, how confident are the team that they can lift the play off trophy again? “We always said we didn’t have the start to the year we wanted and it was apparent we weren’t going to challenge for the league title, so plan B was to make sure we get to the play offs,” explained Tait. “Anything can happen from there as we learnt last year! Last year is a great lesson for the guys that we’ve currently got.”