Sheffield Steelers keep eyes firmly on the main prize

Sheffield Steelers' players celebrate against Fife Flyers on Wednesday night. Picture: Dean Woolley.
Sheffield Steelers' players celebrate against Fife Flyers on Wednesday night. Picture: Dean Woolley.
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SHEFFIELD STEELERS come up against their fiercest rivals Nottingham Panthers twice in the space of four days - and there is little doubt as to which encounter holds more importance.

Saturday night sees Paul Thompson’s side travel to the National Ice Centre in the league before the two sides reconvene at Sheffield Arena on Tuesday night for the second leg of their Challenge Cup semi-final, which the Steelers currently lead 2-1.

And while the Steelers head coach is never likely to admit it, he would almost certainly give up a place in the cup final if it meant two league points could be secured in Nottingham to help his team maintain their bid for a third straight regular season title - even though some believe it is already a two-horse race between Cardiff Devils and Belfast Giants.

And while the prospect of facing Cardiff in the final at Ice Arena Wales on Sunday, March 5 will no doubt hold plenty of appeal - not least for fans - the regular season championship remains the most coveted prize in the British game, at least until the moment comes that the powers-that-be take the plunge and make drastic changes to the post-season play-off format.

For their part, Nottingham would love nothing more on Saturday than to play a major role in denying their long-time rivals a sixth league title.

Whether it be the distractions caused by their European success in the Continental Cup or not, Nottingham’s own league title hopes have long disappeared for another year.

The East Midlands club have not been able to replicate their solitary EIHL league title from 2012-13, part of a memorable campaign for Corey Neilson’s side which also saw them lift the Challenge Cup and the play-off trophy.

They will play host to a Steelers team determined to chase down the top two and buoyed by a 6-1 midweek win over Fife Flyers which extended their winning streak to three games.

Thompson, whose team follow up Saturday night’s trip down the M1 with a more arduous journey to Edinburgh on Sunday morning, took many positives from Wednesday night’s win over Todd Dutiaume’s side at Ice Sheffield, not least the impact enjoyed by new import Geoff Walker, who marked his debut night with a goal and an assist.

“Geoff has bedded straight in,” said Thompson. “You could just tell from watching him that he has played a lot at that AHL level. He goes to the right areas, he reads the game well and he holds the puck well. He’s going to be a real good addition for us.”

Thompson will wait until the latest possible moment before making a decision on which import to leave out at Nottingham. Mike Ratchuk missed the Fife win through injury buy may be in contention again, while forward Guillaume Desbiens is carrying a slight knock.