NOBODY needs to tell Sheffield Steelers’ forward Levi Nelson how big his team’s double-header at Belfast Giants is this weekend.
The defending Elite League champions head to Northern Ireland this morning six points adrift of their second-placed hosts, with leaders Cardiff Devils four points further ahead.
And while the Steelers have games in hand on both, 28-year-old Nelson is well aware that there is little margin for error by the visitors, labelling both encounters as must-win games.
“We go in there knowing we can’t really afford to lose too much more ground on the top two,” admitted Calgary-born Nelson, who has contributed 16 points, including eight goals, in 23 games this season.
“We know what’s ahead of us and we know it is a huge weekend for us and they are both must-win games.
“But we’ve had a good week of practice and while we know it’s going to be a tough test, we’re ready for it.”
In the three previous encounters between the two teams this season, the Steelers have won both games on home ice 5-1, while slipping to a frustrating 2-1 defeat on their last visit to the SSE Arena last month.
Over the Christmas period, the Steelers fell off the pace in the title race with successive defeats to Nottingham Panthers, but hit back last weekend with two wins against an improving Manchester Storm side.
The five-time champions arrive in Belfast further buoyed by the news that influential centre Andreas Valdix will be back in the line-up after being out injured since the two teams met in Sheffield on November 20.
While that news will be greeted with delight by everyone in the Steelers’ organisation, it is particularly welcomed by Nelson and line-mate Robert Dowd, who formed an effective trio before the Swede was injured.
We know what’s ahead of us and we know it is a huge weekend for us and they are both must-win games.Sheffield Steelers’ Levi Nelson
“Having ‘Vally’ back is a whole lot better for us as a team generally,” added Nelson.
“He is one of the top centres in the league and me and ‘Dowdy’ have missed him. It doesn’t matter who we’re playing with, ‘Dowdy’ and me find a way to make it work and find chemistry with whoever. But with ‘Vally’ being out it has been tougher rotating just the three centres and when you are always out there with someone different it’s a bit tougher to build chemistry.”
Head coach Paul Thompson received a further boost on Friday when his medical team passed Colton Fretter fit to play too, the forward suffering an upper-body injury when blocking a shot in last Saturday’s 2-1 win over Mancheste.