JONATHAN PHILLIPS says Sheffield Steelers will put all thoughts of the Challenge Cup final on the back-burner as they attempt to turn up the heat on their Elite League title rivals this weekend.
The Steelers beat Nottingham Panthers 3-0 in a Challenge Cup semi-final, second leg on Tuesday night to seal a 5-1 aggregate victory and book a showdown in South Wales against Cardiff Devils on Sunday, March 5.
And while a chance to avenge defeat to Cardiff in the final two years ago will no doubt be on Steelers’ minds they simply cannot afford to think that far ahead.
The Devils stoked up tension ahead of the final yesterday by succeeding in invoking a league rule to block Steelers’ plan to bring their league game against Coventry Blaze – scheduled for the day before the final – forward by three days.
Steelers’ head coach Paul Thompson was understandably keen to give his players more time to recover and prepare for the final, but they now have to settle for bringing forward the Coventry face-off time on March 4 by just two hours to 5pm.
In the league, leaders Cardiff are in the midst of a double-header at second-placed Belfast Giants this weekend and boosted their hopes of winning the title with a narrow 4-3 victory over their hosts last night.
The win took the Devils five points clear of the Giants, with a game in hand and 10 clear of the Steelers, who have one game in hand over their cup final rivals with two meetings still to come between them.
The best third-placed Steelers can probably hope for is that their rivals boast a win apiece after they renew hostilities at the SSE Arena tonight, an outcome which will only benefit the South Yorkshire club, though, if they themselves can then post a maximum four-point haul in their own weekend double-header against Manchester Storm.
There’s no doubt the Steelers are outsiders as they bid for a third straight EIHL championship, which – if secured – would be their sixth overall. But it is a situation they are familiar with, having not hit top spot until the last three weeks of the campaign in their two previous title triumphs.
“We know there is no more room for slip-ups, we’ve used up all of our lives, if you like,” said Steelers’ captain Phillips ahead of tonight’s Sheffield Arena clash against Manchester (7pm).
“All we can do is take care of business our end. Most people probably regard us as outsiders for the title now, but we’ve shown in recent years how we can come from behind.
“We’ve certainly got that belief we can do it again.
“We know we’re not in the perfect position and where we would like to be – it is always better to be sitting top and in control – but we have shown you can’t rule us out. I don’t think we’ve ever given in.”
On Cardiff’s objection to the Steelers’ wish to switch their fixture with Coventry, Steelers boss Thompson left little doubt about his opinion.
“Cardiff are invoking a league rule which I guess is their right,” he said.
“I know if the roles had been reversed I wouldn’t have done the same thing. I’d like to think that we are bigger than that.
“If we needed any more motivation to win the cup – and I don’t think we did – then the Devils have just given that to us,” he said.
Steelers veteran Rod Sarich has come out of retirement for a second time ahead of the weekend, filling the gap caused by the departure of Sweden’s Christoffer Bjorklund on Wednesday.
The 35-year-old defenceman will act as a spare import and provide injury cover for the remainder of the season, joining Thompson and assistant Jerry Andersson on the bench during games when he is not required to play.
“We have missed Roddy as a person and a player, his experience and his presence are invaluable,” added boss Thompson.
“While I remain disappointed at Christoffer’s departure, I’m excited to be joining up with Rod again for the rest of the year.”