FORTUNATELY for both coaches’ nerves in Glasgow tonight, the latest Elite League meeting between Sheffield Steelers and hosts Braehead Clan is unlikely to resemble the last time they came face-to-face there.
On that occasion, back on November 14, the two rivals shared 16 goals before the Steelers emerged victorious 9-8 after a shoot-out.
It was the sort of free-scoring evening that no doubt kept the fans – particularly any neutrals – delighted, but only served to provide the stuff of nightmares for Steelers’ head coach Paul Thompson and his Clan counterpart, Ryan Finnerty.
Braehead may occupy sixth spot in the overall standings, but they have games in hand on all of their rivals and have suffered the fewest number of regulation losses of any team in the league.
A win for the visitors tonight would see the Steelers clinch the head-to-head series, having earlier got the better of Clan 4-3 in overtime on home ice before heading across the border for the first time this season for that now infamous 17-goal bonanza – described as a “turkey shoot” by Thompson, his team eventually prevailing after Chris Lawrence’s shoot-out winner.
Braehead did get the better of the Steelers on their second trip to South Yorkshire on November 22, when goals from Brendan Brooks and Bari McKenzie were enough to see off the Steelers, despite Jace Coyle’s late reply.
“We’ve done okay against Sheffield this season and we’ve matched up well,” said former Steelers’ coach Finnerty earlier this week. “We’ve gone into overtime with them twice and snuck a 2-1 win at their place a few weeks back, so it’s been pretty close between us all season so far.
“The first game against them in our barn was a nightmare for both Paul and me. As a coach it was painful to watch. Other than the scoring, there wasn’t a whole lot that went right.
“I hope it’s not like that this time around – we’re certainly not preparing for anything like that.”
Together with the Cardiff Devils, both teams fought a fierce battle for the regular season title last season, producing one of the most keenly-contested title chases in the league’s 12-year history.
We’re looking solid again at the moment. We’re getting good goaltending and just generally good defensive play all round – from everybody. We’re not taking short cuts anymore.”Sheffield Steelers’ head coach, Paul Thompson
In the end it was the Steelers – under Thompson’s predecessor Gerad Adams – who emerged triumphant, pipping Braehead by just one point, with Cardiff a further point back in third.
The final standings ensured both Steelers and Clan qualified for their first taste of the Champions Hockey League, a competition launched the previous year that brings together the cream of European ice hockey.
It was always going to prove a tough assignment for both clubs, coming from a British league still regarded as the poor relation when compared to the likes of teams from the Swedish Elite League and other more developed nations such as Finland and Germany.
Early humblings for both teams were followed by a series of impressive performances that have helped fuel the belief that British-based clubs will soon progress beyond the group stage to become a more genuine contender on the continent.
As a former championship winner as a player with the Steelers, Finnerty is still fondly remembered in South Yorkshire, despite two seasons without any silverware when he returned to coach the team between 2011-13.
He was jettisoned by Steelers’ owner Tony Smith that summer, but quickly landed on his feet at Braehead where he has gradually turned them into an effective force in the UK’s top flight.
As for his team’s CHL experience earlier in the season, which included a 6-4 win against ERC Ingolstadt from the German top-flight DEL, Finnerty is adamant – like Thompson – that it will only benefit their clubs and the league in the long run.
“It was great for us,” said Finnerty. “And it was a big learning curve – huge, in fact.
“We learned from the mistakes that Nottingham made the previous year, but it does make it more difficult in the summer when you’re recruiting and trying to put your team together – you are effectively starting two to three weeks earlier.
“But it’s good that we’ve got supportive ownership that understands the importance of participating in tournaments like the CHL, as well as realising that it helps our league grow.”
Thompson takes his team to Glasgow on the back of a four-game winning streak.
Like Finnerty, he does not expect a repeat of the previous meeting there, mostly due to the fact his side’s defensive game has returned to the kind of level that saw them enjoy an eight-game winning streak at the start of the season.
“Obviously, I’d take the two points again up there, but we don’t want another turkey shoot like last time,” said Thompson.
“We’re looking solid again at the moment. We’re getting good goaltending and just generally good defensive play all round – from everybody. We’re not taking short cuts anymore.”
Thompson, the most experienced coach in the Elite League, has been impressed with the way Finnerty has blossomed as a coach in Scotland, particularly after two difficult years in Sheffield, his first coaching position.
“I think Ryan has done a great job up at Braehead,” added Thompson, whose team return home to host his former club Coventry Blaze tomorrow (5pm).
“If you take a job like the Steelers and you’re an inexperienced coach it’s tough, because it’s a such big club and there’s a lot of pressure – there’s a lot of expectation here.
“So to go straight from playing with no coaching experience to being thrown in at the deep end would have been tough for anybody.
“But that was all five years or so ago when he came in here. He cut his teeth here and then he’s gone on to Braehead and he’s turned that franchise into a very dangerous one.”