**In what has been a cracking start to the EIHL season, the Gardiner Conference has proved that when it comes to fight, grit and excitement, it is capable of throwing up the same level of performance as its southern Erhardt counterpart. **
This was demonstrated magnificently last weekend, with the Fife Flyers putting in a tremendous performance against one of the Elite League favourites, the Sheffield Steelers.
Despite coming up against a much bigger franchise, buoyed by the lockout signing of Philadelphia Flyer Tom Sestito, it was Kris Hogg of the Kirkcaldy club who stole the limelight, bagging a hat trick as the Flyers ran out 4-2 winners.
With winning the Pre Season Autumn Cup and having lost only once at Fife Ice Arena all season, Todd Dutiaume's tartan clad ice men have seen one of the most remarkable turnarounds in fortune the EIHL has likely seen.
Flyers' assistant coach Danny Stewart explained the differences between Fife's first season in the Elite League, and how they have adapted and bettered themselves for this year in the UK's premier Ice Hockey league.
The former Coventry Blaze and Newcastle Vipers forward said: "I think the biggest difference was most likely that the team was better prepared on and off the ice.”
With the Flyer's being one of the UK's oldest ice hockey sides, the opportunity to take the place of the Newcastle Vipers in the EIHL for the start of the 2011-12 was one that couldn't be sniffed at.
Stewart was drafted in from the Whitley Bay side to provide some experience and bite, but couldn't prevent the Flyers from finishing bottom of the table and missing out on the playoffs.
This year has been completely different, and Stewart believes that is down to far better preparation for this term.
He said: "The team knew what to expect and we went out and brought in good players in all three zones and players that wanted to play for the jersey. Our guys have been great so far and hopefully that continues.”
Having been around the EIHL for some time, the changes to the league structure have been for the better in the eyes of the 33 year old.
Stewart said: "I think the conference system has proved to be very effective. The league has become more competitive night in and night out. I think also some of the credit has to go with how teams were built this season.
“I think everyone in our conference upgraded at the back end and in the net and that has enabled the Scottish teams in particular to be tougher to play against."
This was proved true by Fife's humbling of the Sheffield Steelers last Saturday night. The healthy rivalry that the Conference split has built between the northern and southern clubs has certainly brought the Scottish sides' fans together in wishing one another well against the other conference.
"I don't think its an ‘us versus them mentality," Stewart said. "They may have some stronger teams but so far it has been proven that anyone can beat anyone on any night.”
With only one defeat at home so far this season, Fife Ice Arena has become somewhat of a fortress, which has kept the Kirkcaldy faithful's spirits high after seeing so many points dropped at home last term. The importance and impact of this is not lost on Stewart.
He said: "It’s huge to win your home games. We have great fans and we want to continue giving them good performances so that they can continue to have something to cheer about. We need to take advantage of home ice just as any team does so it’s definitely important."
Home advantage is a luxury they will have to do without this weekend as the Flyers hit the road to take on Braehead Clan and Dundee Stars on Saturday and Sunday night respectively. Arguably the form teams in the Gardiner Conference, Stewart knows that they can't get carried away with the Sheffield win, having fallen to the Edinburgh Capitals the following evening.
He added: "We will prepare for this weekend just like any other, Edinburgh played a strong game against us and one bad period cost us the game.
“We've got to make sure we show up and play from the drop of the puck and play 60 minutes. Both teams have some firepower and we will need to be responsible with the puck and limit both teams chances."
The Flyers versus Clan game on Saturday at Braehead Arena serves as a League and Challenge Cup match, with the hosts hoping to build on their four point homecoming weekend victories.
Despite rumours of the NHL lockout close to ending, Drew Miller will be icing for the Clan once more in front of his home fans, as will EIHL Player of the Week Jade Galbraith, who racked up five goals over the previous two nights.
Fife's opponents on Sunday, the Dundee Stars, travel to Hull on Saturday to take on a Stingrays side that currently can't buy a win. The two sides met last Sunday in Dundee in what was a tight affair which Mike Wirll won for the Stars on penalties.
This weekend, Jeff Hutchins' men will be looking for a somewhat less tense match on the road, before hosting the Flyers in the Challenge Cup.
The Stingrays then travel to the Hallam FM arena to take on Ryan Finnerty's Steelers in the Challenge Cup, looking to take inspiration from the Flyers upset last week. Edinburgh Capitals will look to finish where they left off at home to Fife last time out, as they host Coventry Blaze in the big league, in their only game of the round.
After craving a big win for such a long time, Scott Neill's men dug deep to treat their home fans to more than a good cup of stovies last Sunday, and a similar performance from Rene Jarolin and Co could jolt their season back to life.
Elsewhere in the EIHL, Doug Christiansen's Belfast Giants head to Germany to represent the Elite League in the IIHF Continental Cup.
As reigning EIHL champions, the Giants will, take on Geleen Smoke Eaters of the Limburgregion of the Netherlands and Romania's HSC Czsikszereda in their Group A match-ups. They go with the good will of the teams in both Conferences, but it will give the other Erhardt sides an opportunity to play catch up in their absence.
This weekends fixtures in full:
Cardiff Devils @ Sheffield Steelers
Dundee Stars @ Hull Stingrays
Fife Flyers @ Braehead Clan
Sheffield Steelers @ Coventry Blaze
Nottingham Panthers @Cardiff Devils
Coventry Blaze @ Edinburgh Capitals
Hull Stingrays @Sheffield Steelers
Fife Flyers @Dundee Stars
Kris Jack is a sports blogger and commentator. You can follow him on Twitter @krisjack85.
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