IT’S SAFE to say that the Erhardt Conference is likely to be the toughest of the three divisions to be involved in during the 2017-18 Elite League season.
And while they may be sitting second in the overall league standings, Sheffield Steelers have so far found life difficult against Conference rivals Cardiff Devils, Belfast Giants and Nottingham Panthers, yet to register a win against the three teams that are likely to be their main rivals for the regular season title.
This weekend offers head coach Paul Thompson’s team the perfect opportunity to even the score somehwhat when a home double header sees them play host to defending champions Cardiff tonight before preparing a welcome party for Belfast 24 hours later.
Many expect the regular season title to go to one of the four Erhardt teams, but Steelers’ captain Jonathan Phillips insists to key thing will be to keep an eye on the bigger picture – particularly with the current leaders being Ryan Finnerty’s Manchester Storm, who hail from a Patton Conference which also comprises of Milton Keynes Lightning, Coventry Blaze and Guildford Flames.
“It really is too early to tell which conference the title is going to come out of this season,” said Phillips.
“Manchester are sitting at the top and have taken quite a lot of points from our conference.
“We’ve got to make sure we don’t get too focussed on our own conference and forget about what is happening with teams in the other two.
“That is the one thing having three conferences has done this season – it’s almost like every single game is a play-off game.
“The conference we are in with Cardiff, Nottingham and Belfast couldn’t really be any tougher.
“We’ve seen already that fine line where I think we’ve been very unlucky in terms of our conference results. We’ve played pretty well against those teams, but we haven’t picked up any wins, frustratingly.
The one thing having three conferences has done this season – it’s almost like every single game is a play-off game.Sheffield Steelers’ Jonathan Phillips
“We lost in overtime against Cardiff at home when we really should have won – or played well enough to win – and it was the same against Nottingham last week when we lost in a shoot-out.
“I don’t think we played too great in Belfast when we lost 3-1, but at home we played well, but just couldn’t score and they shut us out and won 2-0.”
A tricky midweek road trip to bottom club Edinburgh Capitals – often a fixture where the Steelers have come unstuck in recent seasons – was safely negotiated this time around courtesy of a 5-1 victory.
It was particularly satisfying given an arduous travel schedule for Thompson’s players that saw them making a second trip north of the border in just four days having won 5-2 at Dundee Stars on Sunday night.
“Edinburgh was a tricky game to go into really, because we hadn’t seen them this year and we’ve often slipped up against them,” added Phillips.
“They gave us trouble last year and the season before that too.
“But this week was particularly tough, with us also being up there on the Sunday against Dundee.
“We then came back in the early hours of Monday morning, practised Tuesday and then headed back up to Scotland on the Wednesday.
“It was a tough schedule and made it one of those games where we really needed to focus fully.
“But we played great on the nightand it was a really convincing road win in the end.”
Cardiff arrive in Sheffield tonight having undergone a somewhat stuttering start to their domestic campaign, no doubt partly down to their involvement in the Champions Hockey League, which saw them exit at the group stage, like the Steelers did in the two previous seasons.
Belfast, however, will come into South Yorkshire full of confidence, having twice already beaten the Steelers over one weekend last month, while also winning 5-4 at home to league newcomers Guildford Flames last night.
Darcy Murphy’s third period goal proved to be the winner as the Giants moved into fourth place in the overall standings, four points behind the Steelers with a game in hand.