SHEFFIELD STEELERS will look to end a four-match losing streak when they face Dundee Stars in the first leg of their Challenge Cup quarter-final on Tayside tonight.
The South Yorkshire club entered the Christmas period two points clear of their nearest rivals in the Elite League standings, but two defeats each to title rivals Nottingham Panthers and Belfast Giants has left Gerad Adams’s team five points adrift of new leaders Braehead Clan, albeit with three games in hand on the Scottish club.
Steelers topped Group B in qualification and enter the first phase of the knockout stage against a Dundee side currently struggling at the foot of the league table.
“The challenge cup has always been one of our priorities and it remains so,” said head coach Adams, who directed some stinging criticism towards his players after their second defeat in as many nights in Belfast on Saturday night, when they lost 6-3 after a 5-3 reverse the previous evening at the Odyssey Arena.
“We played a great series of games in qualification and finished top of our group. That shows we were and still are serious about this competition.
“Make no mistake, this tie will be tough and we expect to come up against a Dundee side fully motivated to give us a bloody nose. But this competition is one we really want to win.”
The Steelers return to league action on Saturday when they welcome Nottingham to the Motorpoint Arena, Adams’s team intent on inflicting revenge after the two painful defeats to Corey Neilson’s side at Christmas. A tricky trip to Coventry Blaze follows on Sunday night before the second leg of their quarter-final against Dundee in Sheffield next Wednesday – the winner facing a two-legged semi-final against the Panthers after they sealed a last four spot with an 11-8 aggregate win over Fife Flyers, despite a 6-4 defeat at the NIC last night.
Another added incentive for the Steelers to treat the competition perhaps more seriously than they have in previous years is that the one-game final will be staged on ‘home ice’ at the Motorpoint on Sunday, March 8.
But, despite the potential distractions, Adams insisted his players’ focus was solely on Thursday night’s visit to Dundee.
“We aren’t looking past this game, let alone this tie to the weekend or a semi-final against Nottingham. Right now nothing could be further from our minds – this next game is all that matters.”
The Steelers have met the ailing Stars – who were last year’s Gardiner Conference champions – twice already this season, with mixed results.
Rod Sarich, Tyler Mosienko, Jonathan Phillips, Mathieu Roy, Jay Latulippe and Gord Baldwin were all on target in a 6-3 win at home in October, while the Stars gained revenge with a 4-2 win in Scotland just over two weeks later, with Roy netting twice for the visitors.
As their league position suggests, Dundee have endured a poor campaign under second year player-coach Jeff Hutchins – briefly a former Steelers forward under former head coach Dave Matsos back in 2009-10, although he was released after playing just nine games, his number of appearances largely restricted because of a bad concussion he suffered early in the campaign.
Both teams enter the tie in a poor run of form, Steelers’ four-game losing streak is well documented, while the Stars have lost nine of their last 12 games.