The 32-year-old American took a puck to the face during last Sunday’s 3-1 home win against Coventry Blaze, leading to him losing several teeth and the possibility of surgery.
Suffice to say, Fitzgerald – now in his third season with the Steelers – will be missing in action for the foreseeable future, his place filled for this weekend’s games against Nottingham Panthers and Milton Keynes Lightning by the temporary return of Finn Joonas Ronnberg.
The 34-year-old returned home to Finland last month to be with his family, but has already donned the Steelers’ colours since, helping them qualify for the third round of the Continental Cup in January before answering the latest SOS call from head coach Paul Thompson by agreeing to fly over to Sheffield on Thursday night.
Steelers’ captain Phillips acknowledges how much Ronnberg’s return means to the rest of the squad, but admits losing Fitzgerald remains a huge loss.
“People like Zack don’t come along too often,” said Phillips. “He’s one of a kind, a bit old-school in some ways in that he’s not interested in any kind of glory for himself, it’s all about the team and standing up for the team.
“He stands up for every one of us and gets himself in the way of every shot he can. It was a nasty one last week and we’re going to miss him back there, so we need to step up to make up for that.”
Phillips leads his side into battle against a Panthers side currently billed as the team to catch in the overall Elite League standings, second only to Belfast Giants by virtue of having fewer regulation wins but with four games in hand.
The Steelers sit two points further back but having played three more games than Nottingham.
Tomorrow gives the Steelers a chance to exact some swift revenge over newcomers Milton Keynes, after being trounced 7-2 in Buckinghamshire last week.
“It was just one of those bad nights,” said Phillips. “We need to get those points back this week.”