PLAYING defending champions Sheffield Steelers is always likely to entail a tough night’s work, but Hull Stingrays’ player-coach Sylvain Cloutier will be going into Saturday night’s encounter in South Yorkshire in relaxed mood.
For while points will be as difficult as ever to come by at the Motorpoint Arena for Stingrays - both previous visits have resulted in them being shutout - the return of key players means Cloutier will at least be able to ice a more competitive line-up than in recent weeks when they have been severely short-benched.
The return from suspension of top goalscorer Jereme Tendler along with stay-at-home defenceman Martin Ondrej - missing for two weeks with a groin injury - gives Stingrays a depth they have badly lacked as they look to secure a play-off spot.
Nowhere was the shortage of bodies more evident than in last weekend’s 8-0 defeat to leaders Belfast Giants when, despite Hull being only 1-0 down at the end of the first period, tiring limbs and the inevitability of defeat helped see Doug Christiansen’s team run out comfortable 8-0 winners in a match which saw 73 shots rain down on the Hull goal.
Tendler has been back in training all week with the Stingrays after being cleared to play again by UK Anti-Doping, who had originally suspended him on February 3 after he had tested positive for cannabis in a random drugs test carried out following a game in Coventry on January 15.
UKAD decided no further action was necessary after accepting Tendler’s explanation as to how he had unwittingly ingested the drug on a mini-break to Amsterdam with his girlfriend and other friends shortly before Christmas.
And while most eyes will be on Tendler on Saturday night, Cloutier stressed that he values the return of both players in equal measure.
“It is obviously a massive boost to get Jereme back in the line-up,” said Cloutier. “He is our top goalscorer and we obviously missed him.
“We’ve got seven games of the regular season left and he will hopefully score the goals that make sure we get into the play-offs.
“We also missed Martin big time at the back. He’s a stay-at-home guy and a real pain to play against because he just makes life so awkward.”
James Pease, the former Coventry player and now part of the Stingrays management team, has stepped in to help fill the gaps in recent weeks and will remain on the roster, allowing Cloutier to move Daniel Scott back into his forward lines, enabling Hull to run three lines for the first time in more than a month.
“It’s so much better to be able to have enough bodies to roll three lines, particularly when as you saw against Belfast last week, the big teams just keep coming at you and don’t give you any respite,” added Cloutier.
Cloutier acknowledged his team are likely to face a fired-up Steelers regardless of the outcome of their Friday night clash with title rivals Belfast and will follow up the short trip to South Yorkshire by preparing his players for what will be an emotional home match against bottom club Fife Flyers.
The Scottish club have been rocked following the sudden death of Flyers player-coach Todd Dutiaume’s wife Kelly, who died on Monday along with the couple’s unborn twins.
As with elsewhere in the Elite League this weekend, there will be a minute’s silence held prior to face-off against Fife on Sunday as a mark of respect.