ROD Sarich said he would not be returning to the Sheffield Steelers’ line-up for Friday night’s Elite League top-of-the-table clash with Belfast Giants if he did not feel he could contribute to the cause.
Barring any unexpected setbacks, the 30-year-old Canadian will line-up alongside his team-mates for the first time since November 20, when he suffered a freak kidney injury that at one point threatened to end his career.
But the popular defenceman – now in his seventh season with the defending champions – has stepped up the recovery process in recent weeks and has declared himself available for selection.
“I wouldn’t come back at this stage if I felt I was going to be a liability or not be able to contribute something,” he said.
“It is a big game to come back in but that’s probably a good thing. I’ll just be going out and doing what I normally do.
“I’ve built my stamina levels up in the last couple of weeks to a point where I feel I can play in a game.
“I probably won’t fully get back to where I was before the injury until after the summer, but I know I can still play a part.
“It has been a frustrating time but, over the last few weeks, being out on the ice and throwing myself into the boards a few times to test myself has helped get over that.”
The return of Sarich – who has lost 15 per cent use of his damaged kidney as a result of the injury – gives an additional selection headache for player-coach Ryan Finnerty, who will now have to leave two imports on the sidelines. With first-choice goaltender John deCaro set to return after being rested for last Sunday’s 7-0 win at home to Edinburgh, replacement defenceman Nick Duff and forward Neil Clark are the two most likely to sit out.
“It’s such a massive boost having Roddy back – you never truly replace somebody like him,” said Finnerty. “It’s not just about how good he is on the powerplay, it’s his overall game.
“He’s so good at moving the puck up the ice and out of trouble, he doesn’t lose out in too many one-on-one battles and he’s such a big guy. He’s easily up there with the best defencemen I have come across in this league.”
Sarich’s return to the ice could not have come at a better time for the Steelers as they enter the final phase of the season in a two-horse race for the league title with Belfast, who come into the Motorpoint Arena on the back of a 10-game winning streak and having won 4-2 in South Yorkshire a little under a month ago.
Steelers are seven points behind Belfast with three games in hand and, after tonight’s clash in South Yorkshire, there is still a double-header in Belfast still to come.
While defeat would by no means end Steelers’ title hopes, it would require a huge dip in form from an ominously strong-looking Belfast team for them to retain their regular season title.
But Finnerty – aware his team has struggled to deliver in recent big games against Belfast and third-placed Nottingham Panthers – backs his team to produce the goods when it really matters.
“It suits us going into the game as underdogs,” added Finnerty. “It’s not a situation we’re in very often.
“If you go back to last summer, I don’t think many people expected us to be in this position at this stage of the season.
“We need to step up as a complete unit for these kind of games which we perhaps haven’t done in the past. We have struggled in some of the games against the top-end teams, but I think we have it in us to get it right on Friday.
“It is going to be tough because you get no respite from Belfast - all three of their lines are solid and their strength is in the fact that their quality runs so deep.
“But if we compete in every single shift then we’re obviously in with a chance because we have quality of our own.”
Meanwhile, Sheffield Steelers will hold a minute’s silence before Friday night’s game against Belfast in memory of Kelly Dutiaume, the wife of Fife Flyers coach Todd Dutiaume, whose 38-year-old wife Kelly died suddenly on Monday along with the couple’s unborn twins.
Marks of respect are expected to be shown across the weekend at Elite League games, while Fife fans will gather at the club’s rink on Friday night to pay their respects.
Danny Stewart has taking over coaching duties for the team while Dutiaume comes to terms with his terrible loss.
A number of Steelers’ fans are also planning to release Candle Lanterns on the field adjoining Ice Sheffield at 6.30pm.
Both Nottingham Panthers and Hull Stingrays - who host Fife this weekend - will also hold a minute’s silence before their respective games.