Crunch time arrives for Sheffield Steelers' 2018-19 ambitions

THERE is much more at stake than just annual festive bragging rights for the Sheffield Steelers over the next few days, according to captain Jonathan Phillips.

Steelers' captain, Jonathan Phillips

The traditional double-header against fierce rivals Nottingham Panthers will understandably take centre stage - particularly for both sets of fans - but the hectic Elite League schedule represents a crunch period in the South Yorkshire club’s season.

Saturday’s 3-2 comeback win against Guildford Flames - a first triumph over Paul Dixon’s side at the fifth time of asking this season - was the first of six games in 11 days for the Steelers, who end it with a New Year’s Day trip to Manchester Storm.

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Such a relentless programme is nothing new to Phillips or his team-mates, or indeed any of their opponents, but it offers an opportunity to put together a timely, positive run that could not only enhance the Steelers’ play-off hopes, but also throw them back in as an outside candidate for the title.

That may sound extremely fanciful but, with 31 games of the regular season remaining, 17 points is not insurmountable. Unlikely, but not impossible.

Unusually for the Steelers, though, is the fact that while they are looking to close the gap on the leading teams - Sunday’s 6-3 defeat at Glasgow Clan saw them drop to seventh in the standings - they are also having to be acutely aware of the teams below them.

Three teams will miss out on the end-of-season play-offs and the Steelers, insists Phillips, need to ensure they pull clear of such a potential trouble spot sooner rather than later.

To that end, a winning streak during the next week or so - the Steelers have not enjoyed back-to-back wins for just over a month now - would be most welcome.

“Particularly now we’re out of the Challenge Cup, these games over the next week or so are even bigger for us - we need to start picking up points in the league,” said Phillips, who leads his team out at the National Ice Centre to face the Panthers today before a return encounter at Sheffield Arena tomorrow (7pm).

“This week is something that has always been huge for us, particularly the bragging rights over Nottingham, but this is now such an important period in the league for us.

“The league (title) is possibly out of our reach - although you never say never - and this week will definitely have more meaning for us. Being out of the Cup places greater emphasis on these games over Christmas and New Year.

“If we are to stand any chance of closing that gap, we have to start beating those teams at the top. But, also, we have to keep an eye on the teams below us.

“Some have got games in hand which, if they win, would see them leapfrog us - so we’ve got to make sure we don’t end up dropping any further.”