The four teams contesting the sudden death Australian Ice Hockey League finals series this weekend are understandably confident that they will take out the title. Each has beaten the other throughout the season and each has a credible contender's story.
Saturday's semi-finals pit the Melbourne Mustangs against the defending champions the Sydney Ice Dogs, then Melbourne Ice against Canberra Brave, with the two winners to play off for the Goodall Cup on Sunday.
The Dogs withstood early season coaching and administrative upheaval and a 1-5 opening, and have won three games in a row, comprising a thrilling home ice win over the Mustangs and a cut-throat road double over a desperate Perth Thunder.
CBR Brave have munched every challenge thrown at it in its inaugural season, and in four visits to the finals venue, Melbourne's Icehouse, have lost only once in regulation time.
Melbourne Ice has blended emerging and established talent into a unit which led the league until the final round.
And the Melbourne Mustangs were deserved minor premiers, after improving steeply and consistently over the past two seasons.
The finals at the league's 'MCG', the world-class Icehouse in Melbourne's Docklands, ought to be the best-attended and most passionately supported in the 14-year history of the growing league. The two Melbourne teams ensure bumper crowds, and all seats have already been sold, but there are also significant travelling contingents from north of the border. Standing room slots are the only available tickets for purchase.
The AIHL has responded to its burgeoning popularity by allowing an ATC Productions livestream of the event for fans who cannot make it to the games. All three games will also be replayed on Fox Sports in the following week.
The finals weekend is growing as an event, becoming more of a celebration of the sport than just the playing of the final three games of the season.
NHL draftee Nathan Walker will be in attendance before the semi-finals, the league awards ceremony will be held in the rink precinct on Saturday night, and there is an after-party scheduled for the Icehouse following the final on Sunday.
Ice Dogs coach Andrew Petrie says the Ice Dogs will put their heart and soul into their semi-final and take it from there. The teams has flights home booked for Monday afternoon. "We're planning as though we're going to be there," he says of Sunday's decider.
He possesses immense respect for his semi-final opponent, however, saying that he thought the final game of the year between the Mustangs and Dogs in Liverpool, Sydney was as good a contest as he had seen all year.
"Their structure and adherence to systems is far and away better than any other team. Other teams have strong first lines and strong powerplays, but across the board, five on five, they're as well-drilled a team as I've seen," Petrie said Tuesday night.
He is maintaining the same routines which have served his team all year, trying to keep the weekend "as normal as possible".
Finals newcomers CBR Brave are taking a different approach. After a season in which mishaps with two bus trips and an airline flight postponed or cancelled games, two of which impacted Brave, they are taking no chances and coming to Melbourne Friday morning. This will enable the first-time finalists a chance to get reacquainted with the Icehouse during a training session, and will ensure they have no anxiety about travel on the day of their big game.
Captain Mark Rummukainen described their semi-final as the "biggest game of the season, the biggest game of our careers.
"This is not going to happen every year ... we're excited by the opportunity."
He said injured star import forward Mathieu Ouellette would be given every chance to prove his fitness, but if Brave's physio and rehab regime does not perform a miracle, another willing Brave player will step up to the challenge of playing on the stellar Brave first line alongside league top-scorer Stephen Blunden and Anton Kokkonen, who is considered by Brave insiders to be the equal of any player in the AIHL.
Canberra will fear nothing in a season in which it cheated death, forging a new club after being disbanded six weeks before the season's start. Their passionate juggernaut has defied all expectations thanks to the most taxing training regime in the league and brilliant recruiting of experienced locals and high-quality imports.
Rummukainen gladly admits that the aim at the outset was to merely ice a competitive unit that did not get "blown out", as many Canberra Knights teams had been in recent times.
But the team's early success - "beyond everyone's expectations" - cause a quick turnaround in attitude.
"Once the element of surprise was gone, we developed a new mentality. When we had the mid-season blues and dropped games... it would have been easy to say 'here we go again'," Rummukainen said.
That new club goes into uncharted territory undaunted; the Dogs possess confidence as reigning champions; Ice have unsurpassed finals experience and have regained their mojo after a disjointed 2013; the maturing Mustangs, about to play their first final, have been shocking the naysayers all season.
After a season in which results were utterly unpredictable, the only certainty is that Australian hockey fans expect a thrilling finale.
Players to watch:
Import: Jack Wolgemuth. The Alaskan is a tall, powerful defenceman, but the league Most Valuable Player candidate is also a scoring threat. Teams that allow him room to wind up on a weaving rush often pay the price.
Local: Fraser Carson. The young, slight, red-headed goalie is the only local amongst the playoff teams. His solid form in 2014 has enabled the Mustangs to suit up four import skaters, rather than use an import slot on a net-minder.
Import: Jeff Smith. The towering Canadian nomad is a dependable defenceman, but he has also been a useful pest on powerplays, becoming a huge roadblock in front of the net when Ice presses to score with the man advantage.
Local: Todd Graham. The 23-year-old is the most precious of hockey commodities - a skilled defenceman with size and skating ability. At just 23, he is a cornerstone of Ice's line-up and yet another of their many scoring options.
Import: Anton Kokkonen In the possible absence of fellow import Ouellette, two-way sensation Kokkonen becomes even more important. An elite scorer and set-up man, he has formed the league's most lethal first line with Ouellette and league-leading scorer Stephen Blunden.
Local: Mark Rummukainen No AIHL fan would begrudge the stalwart Canberra captain finals success. He has played in a Goodall Cup-winning team once before, but that was for the ACT, when he was just 16, prior to the birth of the AIHL. Since then, Mark has played 238 games without his team making the playoffs.
Sydney Ice Dogs:
Import: Simon Barg has an uncanny ability to find himself alone with only the goalie to beat, even when the Dogs are shorthanded. The prolific scorer is the most potent of the many Ice Dogs scoring aces.
Local: David Dunwoodie Ultra-aggressive forward, once a goalie, then a defenceman, has become the top-scoring local in the league. He has no awareness of his size, loves a check as much as a goal and spends every ounce of energy on every shift.
Australian Ice Hockey league finals series, Docklands Icehouse
Saturday 30 August
12.30-2pm: Skate with the Stars (NHL signee Nathan Walker in attendance)
3pm: First semi-final: Melbourne Mustangs (1) v Sydney Ice Dogs (4)
6.30pm: Second semi-final: Melbourne Ice (2) v Canberra Brave (3)
8.30pm: AIHL Awards night, Groovetrain restaurant, Docklands
Sunday 31 August
3pm: Final winner of semi-final 1 v winner semi-final 2
5.30-8pm: Icehouse: After party
Standing room tickets remain available. Click here.
ATC Productions will livestream the finals series live. Viewers are requested to make a donation to the Soldier On charity in lieu of an access fee. Details here.
Fox Sports Broadcasts
All three games of the series will be broadcast on Fox Sports at 4:30pm on September 9th, 10th, and 11th.
The story Australian Ice Hockey League: The sudden death finale first appeared on Brisbane Times.