THEY have been talking about it for some while, but today is do or die time for Newcastle Vipers.
February 26 has long been ringed in Vipers diaries as the crunch weekend of the season. Two points this evening and there will be more big nights to come.
The ninth-placed Vipers welcome eighth-placed Dundee Stars to Hillheads today, knowing defeat will all but end their play-off hopes. A win, by contrast, and they will be firmly on.
“It’s play-off time in February,” said general manager Jaimie Longmuir. “Nothing’s going to be settled mathematically with the result tonight, but it’s win or nothing. If we win it (the gap between the sides) is three points and anything can happen then. If it goes to seven, it’s totally out of our control.”
Only the top eight teams in the Elite League qualify for the end-of-season play-offs. The Vipers have a home-and-away double-header with Dundee on the final week of the regular season, on March 19/20. It is a weekend Longmuir and his club desperately hope will prove even more important.
The good news for the financially-stricken Vipers is the fixture list has been kind to them.
Under a transfer embargo and with their budget ravaged by the credit crunch – they have no owner and are being propped up by the League until the end of the season – the Vipers have been operating with a skeleton squad for weeks. Many of their fringe players have been borrowed from English National League clubs, so the fact Whitley Warriors do not have a game tonight is a massive bonus. So, too, is the absence of a second Vipers game tomorrow.
“We don’t have to worry about conserving energy for Sunday,” pointed out Longmuir, who is guiding the club through its hand-to-mouth existence. “It’s a massive game and we have got to give it everything. What should also help is that we’re at home. The ice pad at Whitley is a bit smaller, which suits our style of play and helps when you’re short of bodies..”
Lloyd Gibson and Adam Radmall will be unavailable, however. They were borrowed from Sheffield Steeldogs for the 6-3 midweek defeat to Nottingham Panthers, but are needed by their parent club this week. Forward Jamie Tinsdale returns from injury.
“We’re not going in in great shape but there’s no excuses,” said Longmuir. “We’ll do the best we can.
“Although we lost in Nottingham in midweek, the lads will take a lot of confidence from that. We take a lot of confidence from that because they’re a big team and we shouldn’t even be getting that close to teams like that.
“But we’ve been playing well at home recently (winning three out of five). There was the Belfast loss but that wasn’t unexpected the way they’re playing. From what I’ve seen this season I would never count them (the Vipers) out of anything.”
The Stars have not had as much luck on the fitness front this week, and assistant coach Brent Hughes faces an 11th-hour fitness test before the 7pm face-off.
The former Newcastle playmaker injured his shoulder in Sheffield on Thursday and while the Scots have refuted suggestions it is dislocated, he nevertheless might not be fit to play.
The Vipers will be dispensing with their usual colours to wear pink in aid of Macmillan Cancer Support, and all supporters are invited to a post-match “Pink Party”, where they can mingle with home players and get autographs and photos.
Supporters will be encouraged to show their support for the charity by wearing something which matches the colour of Newcastle’s limited edition shirts.
The Warriors are in Northern League action at home to Fife Flyers tomorrow.