RYAN FINNERTY believes his Braehead Clan team are the surprise package of the season, as he returns to South Yorkshire looking to take a massive step towards sealing a dream Elite League title.
Victory tonight over second-placed Sheffield Steelers, the club he served as both player and coach, would see Finnerty’s team go seven points clear at the top of the standings with their rivals having just six games to play.
And with Steelers still having to play third-placed Cardiff Devils three more times in the regular season – not to mention their Challenge Cup Final meeting on Sunday – the odds are favourable for a Clan success story, as they look to add to the Gardiner Conference title they secured at a canter just 10 days ago.
Top of the standings since January 2 following a 4-2 win over Fife Flyers, Finnerty believes his team have grown into their status as the team to catch with each passing week, but believes the level of expectation in Sheffield is still higher than in Glasgow.
“I think we had a rough idea when we started out this year as to where we’d like to be if we had a good season,” said Finnerty.
“But I certainly don’t think that anybody else expected us to be in the position we’re in now.
“We’ve got more comfortable with it all as time has gone on and we are desperately pushing for this title.”
The Steelers have beaten Braehead twice in three meetings this season, losing out 5-3 when the teams met for a second time in as many nights in Glasgow back in November.
The only previous meeting in South Yorkshire saw Gerad Adams’s team comfortably triumph 4-1.
Defeat to Coventry on Sunday night seriously harmed the Steelers’ title claims and defeat tonight would leave them and Cardiff with little time to claw back the deficit on Braehead.
Adams has already labelled tonight a must-win game, but Finnerty is only concerned with what his team has to do.
“We’re trying not to be overwhelmed by worrying about what the other teams are doing,” he added. “We are confident going into Sheffield and we should be because we’ve been playing well.”
When in charge at Cardiff, Adams was Finnerty’s last coach before his captain made the move towards the bench with a player-coach role at the Steelers, where he had enjoyed success as a player, including a league and play-off double in 2009.
It was a tough baptism of fire for Finnerty on the bench and he was sent packing after two frustrating, barren years, although he was quickly snapped up by Braehead who brought him in to succeed Paul Gardner, who had guided the club to their first conference title.
Finnerty, who returns to Sheffield with former Steelers’ forwards Lee Esders and Stefan Meyer in his line-up, has no time for any sub-plots to tonight’s game that may intrigue others.
“It’s not about me at all and my time with the Steelers – it’s about the guys on our team and our organisation as a whole,” he added.
“There are much more important things to worry about. I’m happy up here. I feel as a coach that I am improving all the time - I’ve learnt a lot in the last few years and I feel better for it.
“‘G’ and me usually talk a lot during the season but, understandably, we haven’t this week!
“He was my last coach and it’s exciting for both of us. I know we will both do what it takes to win.”
Steelers’ captain Jonathan Phillips, who played alongside and then under Finnerty at the Motorpoint Arena, acknowledges the achievement of Braehead in maintaining their title chase and admitted defeat to the top team would leave little time for the hosts to wipe out the seven-point deficit that would open up.
“They’ve taken points off teams in both conferences and are there by rights at the top,” said Phillips.
“It’s a must-win game for mus – it’s as simple as that. But we’re going in with a positive attitude, similar to how we approached the second leg of the semi-final in Nottingham.”