SHEFFIELD Steelers possess the experience and maturity to handle the big occasion, according to head coach Ryan Finnerty.
The early-season Elite League leaders face their toughest assignment yet on Saturday night when they head to the National Ice Centre to face arch-rivals Nottingham Panthers.
As if that wasn’t enough, they then had home to welcome reigning regular season champions Belfast Giants at the Motorpoint Arena on Sunday night.
It will, as Finnerty admits, be the best indication yet of where the Steelers are as a team in comparison to their main rivals.
The match which will make most headlines, however, involves the short trip down the M1 to Nottingham for a first meeting of the season against the Panthers, a team who held the upper-hand over the Steelers last season, winning six of the eight meetings between the two sides, including two heavy 5-1 home triumphs at the NIC.
With more games between the league’s top sides scheduled this season due to the new, two-conference structure, Finnerty is confident his current roster has the ability to cope with the additional big occasions that will come their way.
“We have a much more mature team this year,” said Finnerty. “We’ve got the guys who can rise to the occasion. Last year, we had big players who didn’t show up when it mattered at times.
“Last year is gone as far as I’m concerned. They got the better of us last time and the guys that are still here know that - but we are a different beast this year.
“This year, with the way the league is, there is no hiding in these big games and I believe we have the guys to deal with that.”
Although only being the third weekend into the regular season, Finnerty believes the match-ups against two of the league’s top teams will give him an early indication as to how strong his new-look team is.
“It’s a great weekend for us to see where we are as a team,” he added. “And to see where we maybe need to make improvements or changes because these are two good teams we are playing.
“These sort of weekends are the best coaching tool out there.”
And while Finnerty is all too aware of the special intensity reserved for Panthers-Steelers matches, he acknowledges that this one has been given some added spice as it sees Steelers’ defenceman Danny Meyers make his first return to the NIC since being controversially released by Corey Neilson at the end of last season.
Meyers has fitted into his new surroundings effortlessly and Finnerty said it would give him and his players extra satisfaction if they were able to seal a win for the former Panthers captain on what will be an emotional night for him.
“I think deep down the boys would love to get a good win for Danny down there,” added Finnerty, who expects to have forward Corey Pecker back in the line-up after recovering from a groin strain.
“He’s all about the Steelers nowadays and he stresses that this game isn’t about him. But it can’t be easy to give your all for a club like he did for so many years, to then get turned out all of a sudden and then having to go back there playing for their biggest rivals.
“There are a lot emotions in that building that he is going to have to deal with - but he’s a true professional. He won a lot of cups there and I hope he gets a good reception from the Nottingham fans because he deserves it.
“I’m sure that will change once the first puck drops though.”