SHEFFIELD Steelers players need to pay less respect to Nottingham Panthers in the last regular season meeting between the two teams on Saturday night, according to captain Jonathan Phillips.
The Steelers recorded a morale-boosting 4-2 win over their fierce rivals on home ice on Tuesday night, a result which, on the back of two defeats at the weekend to leaders Belfast Giants, leaves the Panthers’ already-fading title hopes in tatters.
While it is still mathematically possible for Corey Neilson’s team to end their long wait for a regular season league title, it would take a serious dip in form for both Belfast and the Steelers to let them back into the reckoning.
Second-placed Steelers – who also won 5-4 in Dundee on Thursday – head into Saturday night’s clash at the National Ice Centre seven points behind Belfast, with five games in hand, Doug Christiansen’s team extending their win streak to seven games with a 6-1 win over Hull Stingrays at the Odyssey Arena on Friday night.
So far this season, Neilson’s talented team have enjoyed superiority over their South Yorkshire rivals. All three previous meetings at the NIC have gone the way of Nottingham, most memorably a 5-1 thrashing of the Steelers back in December. The Panthers have also won twice at the Motorpoint Arena, once in the league and again in the Challenge Cup.
As ever, the atmosphere should be intense in front of a sell-out crowd in Nottingham. And if the Panthers are not able to bring the trophy home themselves, Phillips knows nothing would give them greater pleasure than sabotaging the title hopes of their fiercest rivals.
“It’s going to be pretty hostile down there – as it always is,” said Phillips.
“When we’ve been down there before this season I think we’ve kind of paid them too much respect. We can’t afford to do that, particularly this time as it is such an important game for us.
“We’ve got to make sure we concentrate on what we’ve doing well all season and make sure we outwork them and play smarter. We’ve tried to play them at their own game on previous visits and that’s not what we’re about.”
Steelers will still be without forward and assistant coach Ashley Tait, who has been out since February 5 with an ankle injury. It is expected that player-coach Ryan Finnerty will revert to the four-man defensive system that brought his team both points in Sheffield on Tuesday.
“I’d like to think the guys will draw some inspiration from beating Nottingham earlier this week,” said Finnerty.
“They’ve had our number for most of this season and, on their day, they can be the best up-and-down team in the league.
“If you are going to be successful and challenge for trophies then you have to go through the Panthers.”
Despite being down on numbers in Belfast, Hull more than matched their hosts for the first two periods on Friday night.
Robert Dowd scored a short-handed goal at 2.33 to give Belfast the lead, although the visitors were level before the end of the first period through Andrew McKinney’s 19th-minute strike.
Jeff Mason’s 35th-minute goal saw the Giants take a 2-1 lead into the third and once he grabbed his second of the night at 46.58 on the powerplay it was game over.
Two goals from Mike Hoffman and Mason’s hat-trick strike in the final minute followed against a tiring Hull team, who will now prepare for the visit of fourth-placed Cardiff Devils tomorrow (6pm).
In the English Premier League, Sheffield Steeldogs - fresh from qualifying for the EPL Cup final - will return to league action with a trip to Bracknell Bees on Sunday.