MATT Stephenson always expected to see more ice time once he made the move to the UK with Sheffield Steelers - just maybe not as much as he has done in recent weeks, writes Phil Harrison.
Not that the 27-year-old Canadian is complaining, with the defenceman proving an instant hit as one of the six new faces brought in by player-coach Ryan Finnerty for the 2011-12 Elite League campaign.
Boasting more than 130 games in the AHL, Stephenson helped the newly-formed Texas Stars to the Western Division Championship in its first season in 2009-10 before losing out to Hershey Bears in the Calder Cup Finals.
Another, much briefer play-off experience followed before Stephenson decided to make the switch to the UK where part of the deal which persuaded him to come here sees him studying at Sheffield University.
On ice, it seems to have been a smooth transition for the father-of-one. Billed as a no-nonsense, stay-at-home defenceman, Stephenson has lived up to expectations, while also adding some welcome offence to Finnerty’s team, contributing two goals and 13 assists in his 27 appearances.
“I came in without any expectations because I honestly didn’t know what to expect,“ said Stephenson.
“I’d heard some horror stories from friends who had gone to leagues in various parts of Europe and I was just hoping for the best.
“But I’d heard nothing but great things about Sheffield and it has lived up to what I had heard about it so far, if not surpassed it. The people, the organisation have been awesome and made the transition much easier for us.
“It’s a different style of hockey over here, more run and gun. It’s not necessarily faster than over in North America, just a lot more open.
“You play in a bigger rink so there’s a little more room for skill, whereas back home it’s more of a tight, defensive game and you earn every inch, making it really hard to make plays.”
The arrival of replacement defenceman Francis Trudel in time for last week’s three-game weekend will have come as some relief to Stephenson and his fellow blue liners, who had been stretched to the limit following the long-term kidney injury suffered by Rod Sarich last month.
But with Sarich possibly out for the season, it was vital fresh legs were brought in to help relieve the pressure and Trudel impressed immediately, particularly when scoring the game-winning overtime goal at home to Braehead Clan on Sunday.
“I always knew I was going to be playing a little more over here, but I didn’t know it was going to be about double what I was used to,” said Stephenson.
“I remember my first year in Texas I was playing between 15-20 mins (per game) and you come here and you’re playing about 30-40, sometimes even more. It’s definitely different.
“The biggest difference when you’re a man down is that as the game goes on and you’ve done a long shift it normally takes a couple of minutes to get your breath back, but when you’ve only got four guys you haven’t got those couple of minutes so you have to get right back out there.
“It definitely hurts losing Roddy, he’s quality and you can only hope he has a speedy recovery - it was such a strange one to get, I’ve never seen an injury like that before.
“Frankie looked really good out there last weekend. It’s nice to have a fresh face in there and when you’re coming back to the bench and one of you is just gassed then you don’t have to necessarily worry about doing a double shift. It’s nice to have another guy - and one that you can rely on.”
The Steelers kept their title defence on track with two league wins last weekend, their other success at Coventry keeping their Challenge Cup hopes intact ahead of a final group game against Cardiff Devils on December 23 which will decide who joins Nottingham, Belfast and Braehead in the semi-finals.
This weekend sees forward Neil Clark return to the line-up, with young defenceman Chad Huttel being the spare import to miss out this time around as bottom club Fife Flyers provide the opposition on both nights.
The first meeting takes place in Sheffield on Saturday before a first visit of the season to Kirkcaldy on Sunday for Finnerty’s team. In the only previous meeting between the two, Steelers strolled to a 5-0 win at the Motorpoint Arena.
It has proved a difficult first season in the Elite League for Fife, who are firmly rooted to the bottom of the table. But there have been signs of improvement in recent weeks and last week’s signing of recently-sacked Dundee Stars coach Dan Ceman has added much-needed experience and quality to their line-up.