Cardiff Devils have set their sights on victory in the final round of the Continental Cup in France this weekend.
The Continental Cup – celebrating its 25th anniversary this year – is the International Ice Hockey Federation’s Europe-wide tournament.
It is European ice hockey’s second-level club tournament behind the Champions Hockey League (CHL), with 18 countries represented this season.
“The players are more than excited,” said Cardiff head coach Brodie Dupont.
The Devils progressed from round three in November.
They did so in some style, winning their three group games played at Ice Arena Wales.
Devils beat French team Angers Ducs 3-1 before a 3-0 win over 12-time champions of Slovenia Acroni Jesenice.
They topped the group by beating Latvia’s Zemgale Jelgava 5-2.
It will be another tough weekend for the Devils in Angers, where they again play three games in three days.
On Friday Cardiff face hosts – and two-time French Cup winners – Angers Ducs, who are third in France’s Ligue Magnus.
On Saturday, they take on Asiago Hockey, who are eight-time champions of the Italian Hockey League and are members of the International Central European Hockey League.
The Devils complete their final round games on Sunday against the tournament’s top-seeded team HK Nitra, who are past winners of the Slovak Extraliga.
‘The Continental Cup kickstarted a bit of confidence’
Since round three of the Continental Cup, there has been a sizeable improvement to Devils’ league form.
They have cut the gap to top spot – held by Guildford Flames – in the Elite Ice Hockey League from 10 points to three and are third in the table.
Since November, they have won 12 of their 15 games.
“The Continental Cup here kickstarted a bit of confidence. We know there’s a certain way to play and we proved that,” said Dupont.
“We felt like we dominated that weekend and a lot of it has been carried over into the league.
“We knew we had to go on a run [in the league] if we are going to have any chance at the top of the table.
“The other teams at the top are playing well too, so you have to at least keep pace and win the big games when they come.”
The stabilization of the Devils’ league form has been partly down to the recruitment of new players.
With Jake Coughler and Sam Jardine sidelined by concussion, the Devils were finding themselves short of bodies.
They drafted highly rated Scottish youngster Reece Kelly, who is on a development two-way deal with Bristol Pitbulls and Cardiff, to bolster their defence.
Cardiff then signed 23-year-old forward Rory Herrman on his first professional contract after his graduation from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York State, where he had played in the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the top level of American university hockey.
The most significant of the recent recruits is Quebec-born forward Stefan Fournier from Wichita Thunder.
A former All-star in the ECHL, he is a character who has seemingly made an instant impact at the Devils.
“Fournier is a very experienced player, I knew him from playing against him in the ECHL and the AHL (American Hockey League),” Dupont said.
“He’s actually been following Cardiff for two years already. He’s aware of many guys that have come here, he knows of the reputation here, so he didn’t take a lot of convincing to come.
“He’s got that old school soul and has got a bit of flair to his attitude which has instilled some good energy in the room.
“He’s got some guys who aren’t big talkers talking now and that’s a good thing.”
Devils disappointed that ‘there is no CHL place on the line this weekend’
In early November the CHL decided the number of teams who would compete in the 2023-24 tournament would be reduced from 32 to 24.
That meant the winners of this year’s Continental Cup will not be given one of the five wildcard places for next season’s CHL.
Devils managing director Todd Kelman said: “Over the last few years the winner of the Continental Cup was given entry into the CHL. With the CHL reducing its numbers, that means some tough decisions had to be made.
“We were informed a couple of weeks ago that the Continental Cup winner will not get an automatic bid into the CHL, which I am sure all four teams in the final round are disappointed about. We certainly are.
“If we are lucky enough to win the Continental Cup, we were expecting a spot in the CHL, as were the other three teams we are competing against.
“It doesn’t take away the prestige of competing for the Continental Cup title because we obviously want to win it, but we are certainly disappointed that there is no CHL place on the line this weekend.”
Despite that blow, the Devils are expecting their five-day French road trip to be a positive experience for the squad.
Dupont said: “It’ll be good for team-building. You’re spending so much time with each other, you can’t help to become a closer group.
“You look to do this in training camp, to try to bond the team together as quickly as possible.
“So to get this opportunity mid-season, especially with how close our team has come together, I think it’s only going to add to our strength.”
Devils will be aiming to win the Continental Cup for the first time.
“We’re going to face a different style of hockey, but we’re going to play our hockey,” Dupont added.
“We felt like we competed well last round, but now the teams are better, and the stakes are simply one winner takes all.”
IIHF Continental Cup 2023 final round matches at Angers IceParc, France:
Friday, January 13
HK Nitra v Asiago Hockey (15:30 GMT)
Cardiff Devils v Angers Dukes (19:00 GMT)
Saturday, 14 January
Cardiff Devils v Asiago Hockey (3.30pm GMT)
Angers Ducs v HK Nitra (19:00 GMT)
Sunday, 15 January
HK Nitra v Cardiff Devils (3.30pm GMT)
Asiago Hockey v Angers Ducs (19:00 GMT)