After missing the playoffs for the first time in their history, Head Coach Danny Stewart made wholesale changes to the Genting Casino Coventry Blaze roster during the summer of 2017. Out went fan favourites Brian Stewart, Jim Jorgensen, Liam Stewart and Ashley Tait. In came netminder Kevin Nastiuk following a successful career in Germany, proven Elite League goalscorer Ryan Dingle, high profile forward Adam Courchaine, and talented young British forward Luke Ferrara, to join a returning core built around captain Jordan Pietrus, Brett Robinson, Kevin Noble and Ross Venus.
The season got off to a reasonable start. Comprehensive home wins over Sheffield and Belfast on consecutive weekends at the beginning of October gave rise to hopes that the team would challenge for the Patton Conference title and make a return to the post-season. Much of this optimism came from the form of Marco Vallerand, who gave the team its most potent goalscoring threat since Ryan Ginand in 2013/14 and soon found himself leading the league scoring charts.
But, as has often been the case with the Blaze in recent seasons, consistency became an issue, with excellent wins often followed by disappointing defeats. There were problems with goalscoring depth in the early part of the season, as the players brought in to provide offensive fire power alongside Vallerand struggled to do so; the team’s powerplay repeatedly misfired; while at the other end of the ice, defensive lapses cost the team dearly again and again. Coach Stewart’s post-game press conferences regularly lamented the team’s inability to iron out simple mistakes, protect leads, and find a way to win close games, as they repeatedly came out on the wrong side of results by a single goal. As league form fluctuated, the Challenge Cup once again proved to be a disappointment, as the team managing to register just one win and failed to make the knock-out stages again.
After beating Milton Keynes 5-3 at the Skydome two days before Christmas, the Blaze managed to win just two of their next 15 games, a run that culminated in a 9-1 thrashing at the hands of the Manchester Storm in Altrincham at the beginning of February. But, just when it seemed that all hope of reaching the playoffs had disappeared, the team with the addition of puck-moving defenceman Alex Miner Barron suddenly found some form at the most crucial time. Hard fought wins away to playoff rivals Braehead and Dundee, as well as bogey team Fife among others, helped thrust the team firmly back into the battle for eighth place and that late-season surge eventually saw the Blaze sneak past the Clan and the Stars to secure that final playoff spot.
Despite a hard fought contest over two legs, the season ultimately came to an end against the league Champions, Cardiff Devils in the playoff-quarter final.
There were reasons to be positive during the season. Luke Ferrara, having been deemed surplus to requirements by Sheffield, benefitted from the increased ice time he gained at the Skydome to have a breakout season, netting a hat-trick against Milton Keynes in late February on the way to registering 30 points. Fellow Brit Ross Venus continued to make a case for being the most underrated home-grown player in the Elite League, passing 500 games for the club during the season at the age of just 23 and enjoying the most productive season of his career so far points-wise. And young British netminder Brython Preece used the limited opportunities he received to show he has the attributes and ability to develop into a possible future starter in the Elite League.
As always, captain Jordan Pietrus led by example on and off the ice and was rewarded with his best season points-wise in the Elite League; the oft-maligned Brett Robinson, combining assistant coach duties with playing, was again among the team’s top points scorers; and Ben Lake, one of the club’s less heralded signings, showed that he was much more than the third line forward he was signed to be, enjoying a career year and regularly playing on the top two lines and notching crucial goals as the season entered its most crucial period.
And, of course, there was Vallerand, who became the first Blaze player to score more than 30 goals in an Elite League season since 2013/14, and further endeared himself to fans with his committed performances on the ice, playing a pivotal role on both the powerplay and penalty kill.