Sheffield Steelers v Cardiff Devils - O'Connor striving to make life difficult for defending champions

STAND FIRM: Ben O'Connor is keen for Sheffield Steelers to push Cardiff Devils a lot closer than in previous encounters between the two teams this season. Picture: Dean Woolley.
STAND FIRM: Ben O'Connor is keen for Sheffield Steelers to push Cardiff Devils a lot closer than in previous encounters between the two teams this season. Picture: Dean Woolley.
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BEN O'CONNOR believes league position will count for little when Sheffield Steelers play host to reigning Elite League champions Cardiff Devils.

The last four seasons have seen the two teams go toe-to-toe, the Steelers winning the regular season title in 2015 and 2016, while Andrew Lord’s Cardiff side are the ones currently riding high, taking the league honours over the last two seasons.

It seems Cardiff are on course for a third straight title, too, after two home wins over second-placed Belfast Giants at the weekend left them nine points clear of their nearest rivals.

By contrast the Steelers are enduring an unusually torrid time, sinking to second-bottom on the back of a five-game losing streak before a four-point return from the weekend’s double-header against bottom club Milton Keynes Lightning handed them a timely boost.

Defenceman O’Connor is preparing for his first encounter of the campaign against the Devils having been playing in Sweden at the time of the 6-2 and 7-1 defeats suffered by the Steelers earlier this season.

And despite the current difference between the two teams in the standings, the 30-year-old GB international is confident head coach Tom Barrasso’s side can put up more of a fight on Wednesday night (7.30pm) at Sheffield Arena.

“I watched the webcast when they played us down in Cardiff and it was horrible,” said O’Connor, who will be joined on the blue line by newly-arrived Latvian defenceman Silvestrs Selickis, who arrived on Tuesday to provide short-term injury cover for Josh McFadden

“But our team has changed a lot since then, that game was when Tom had first come in, only his first or second game in charge I think, but a lot has changed since then and it will be good to show them that we are a different team and that we’ll come out fighting.

"It doesn’t matter if we are in 10th place, 9th place or second place, the games between Cardiff and Sheffield are always hard-fought and always tough games."

O'Connor got to meet his new team-mate Selickis in training at Sheffield Arena on Tuesday and was impressed with what he saw, although the 20-year-old's first taste of the UK top-flight is likely to prove something of a baptism of fire against a team who have lost just once in their last 14 games.

There may have been a familiarity between Selickis and his new coach at practice on Tuesday, given the two came up against each other earlier in the season in the Alps Hockey League when the Latvian lined up for EK Zell am See in a 4-1 defeat against Asiago - the team then coached by Barrasso before his switch to South Yorkshire in October to succeed Paul Thompson.

For O'Connor and fellow defencemen Mark Matheson, Ryan Martinelli and Aaron Johnson, just having an extra pair of legs out on the ice will provide some welcome relief, the four having spent the last three games sharing all the shifts.

"It is tough going with just the four D," added O'Connor. "Particularly with how good the league is now - but we can’t complain or make excuses we just have to get on with it.

"He (Selickis) skated with us in practice and he looked good. He’s a young kid, but he's got good size and skates well. I don’t know what his situation is previously this season, but Tom and Mark have taken a look at him and will obviously slot him in where they see fit.

"To throw him into a game against a team like Cardiff , after coming into a new city and a new team is a big ask, but that’s just the way it is."