DESPITE having the utmost respect for Paul Thompson and all he has achieved in the game, Ryan Finnerty realises he needs to ensure the Coventry Blaze head coach’s 18-year tenure at his beloved club ends on a losing note.
Finnerty’s Sheffield Steelers head into this weekend’s Elite League play-off quarter-final with Coventry determined to atone for last year’s shock exit at the same stage against Hull Stingrays.
On paper, this year’s last-eight match-up is a more difficult proposition, with the Blaze having finished fourth in the overall league standings, one place but 19 points behind the Steelers.
The eight-game regular season series between the two sides saw the Steelers comfortably come out on top, winning six of the games as well as the two Challenge Cup group encounters between the two rivals.
Finnerty was all set to play under former GB coach Thompson at Blaze two summers ago, until he opted to return as player-coach to the South Yorkshire club he had served with distinction on the ice.
Thompson, who has guided the Blaze to four Elite League titles, as well as clinching a grand slam in 2004-05, is moving on after 18 years at the helm in Coventry to take up a coaching position at Troja-Ljungby in the Swedish second division.
While Finnerty wishes his counterpart all the best in his new venture, he knows there will be little room for sentiment this weekend and will gladly deny Thompson and his team a fairytale ending.
“Thommo is by far the best coach in the whole league,” said Finnerty. “These two games are going to be full of emotion and he deserves to get the best from his players and the fans for all he has achieved there. He’s the most respected coach in the whole league.
“But, after what happened last year, we have to reach the final-four weekend and, while it’s going to be tough, we’re confident we can make it.
“Unfortunately, we’re going to want to send him off with a defeat. It’s going to be a couple of games full of emotion, especially come Saturday.”
Finnerty believes his side’s preparations ahead of tonight’s first leg at Coventry’s Skydome Arena - the return leg is on Sunday night (6pm) at Ice Sheffield - will have been helped by knowing who they would be facing in the first round of the post-season for the last two weeks.
He expects Coventry to come out the traps flying in front of their own fans, but is confident his team can cope with the offensive and physical threat posed by Saturday night’s hosts, as they proved two weeks ago in the league when they built up a 5-0 lead before eventually going on to win 8-3.
“They’re a very good hockey club and have got plenty of offence,” added Finnerty. “They’ve got some injuries on the back end, but they will rally around that. We’re expecting a very physical Coventry side, we’re expecting a very offensive Coventry side to come at us and we’re going to counter that by being tight defensively and taking our chances when they come along.
“We need (netminder) John DeCaro to be our best player. He’s been the best goalie in the league as far as I’m concerned and we’re going to rely on him heavily in the next two weeks.”
Thompson, whose preparations were rocked after the club released prized defenceman Jerramie Domish after he failed a routine druges test, accepts each of his players will have to reach their full potential if they are to upset the odds and reach the final four weekend in Nottingham next weekend.
“Sheffield are expected to win, they are the big arena club and we have lost a couple of defencemen,” said Thompson. “We are the underdogs, we understand that and we accept that. But we have to have every single player on the top of their game for us to win.
“If we put in a performance like we have over the last three games we will be going home. If we put in a performance like I know we can and play to our potential then we have a chance of going to the final four weekend.”