WHILE most people may be looking ahead to Sunday night’s Elite League showdown against title rivals Nottingham Panthers, head coach Ryan Finnerty will be ensuring his Sheffield Steelers team accomplish the first part of their weekend mission.
Finnerty is expecting a much tougher welcome party for his players when they visit Braehead Clan on Saturday night, the Scottish club enjoying a new lease of life under head coach Paul Gardner.
The Clan, many people’s pre-season favourites for the Gardiner Conference title and, with it, the overall league title, have endured an up-and-down campaign, partly due to them having spent a large part of the season short-benched. But, under former NHL assistant and AHL head coach Gardner, the Scottish club are unbeaten in five games – their best run of the season.
Gardner was brought in somewhat controversially to work with former player-coach Jordan Krestanovich, who opted to leave the club as a result of the appointment.
At one point it was thought he was on his way to join the Steelers but, earlier this week, the Clan announced the Canadian-born centre would be returning to ice with them for the rest of the season after being cleared by doctors following an “illness.”
But regardless of who is in the Clan line-up, Finnerty said his players can expect a far tougher assignment than the one they encountered on their previous visit in November when they won 7-2.
“The Clan have had their ups and downs this season and there seem to have been a lot of changes,” said Finnerty. “But they seem to have made the biggest change most recently with their new coach.
“We’re obviously looking to close that gap on Nottingham at the top and we’ll deal with that on Sunday (5pm).
“But there’s not much point in beating Nottingham if we don’t get past Braehead the night before and our guys are smart enough to realise that.
“We know it’s going to be tough. He seems to have got them playing well and we know it’s going to be a different kind of Braehead team that we come up against.”
The Steelers – seven points adrift of the Panthers with 15 games remaining – eased into a Challenge Cup semi-final encounter against Braehead thanks to a 7-0 drubbing of Dundee Stars in Wednesday night’s quarter-final, second leg, a result which gave them a 9-4 aggregate win.
The intensity which gave them a 5-0 first period lead at Ice Sheffield on Saturday, is something Finnerty hopes is carried over into this weekend – although he is keen for his players not to overstep the mark and incur costly penalty calls.
“We need to make sure we bring a big performance back from Braehead ahead of the Nottingham game,” added Finnerty.
“Against Dundee, we played with the kind of edge that you sometimes need and I hope we carry that attitude into this weekend.
“We’ve had some great, close games with Nottingham this season and they’ve got a good, balanced group of guys there.
“We’ve got to go out there with an ‘in-your-face’, physical game and play with an edge – but we also need to make sure we are careful and don’t step over the line.”