ALL in all, around 17,000 people will pack into opposing arenas to watch Sheffield Steelers take on arch-rivals Nottingham Panthers over the next two days.
Not bad at all for a ‘minority’ sport.
Such fervour and excitement among rivals fans at this time of year does not – unsurprisingly – go unnoticed by Steelers’ head coach Paul Thompson and his players, who will love nothing more than playing in front of today’s sellout crowd at the Sheffield Arena with around 9,300 expected to attend.
Then they get to do it all again tomorrow – albeit in front of a more hostile crowd – at Panthers’ National Ice Centre home.
So far this season, the Steelers have enjoyed the better of the exchanges, particularly on home ice where they have convincingly beaten the Panthers on their last two visits.
In terms of the standings, the Steelers again have the upper-hand, with the Panthers six points behind their fiercest rivals having played a game more.
With the way the Steelers’ head-to-head series with leaders Cardiff Devils is going, they cannot afford any slip-ups over the next two days, something of which head coach Thompson is acutely aware.
“While we’ve done very well against Nottingham so far this season, we certainly won’t take anything for granted,” insisted Thompson, who will again be without injured Swedish forward Andreas Valdix.
“They are a good team. They are a well-coached team and, like ourselves, they are a big club.
“They’ve had a bit of a tough time of it against us this season, but then, the other week, they went down to Cardiff and walloped them 8-0 and they’ve beaten Cardiff at home too and that is something that we haven’t done this year, so they will have our full respect.”
Steelers head into today’s encounter (4pm) having secured two victories in as many days against a hit-and-miss Coventry Blaze side, who last season enjoyed superiority over them both home and away.
This season, the Steelers’ main nemesis appears to be the Devils, Andrew Lord’s side having won all five league encounters between the two this season; they currently sit eight points ahead of their third-placed rivals.
But with three further meetings between the two to come this season, and with the Steelers having four game in hands on the Devils, defenceman Zack Fitzgerald is convinced there is still plenty to play for.
“Last year, Cardiff seemed to be in first for the whole time, but we ended up winning the league on the last weekend,” said Fitzgerald.
“You can’t ever write us off. We’re always capable of grinding results out and we’re resilient.
“We’ve played well as a team against Cardiff, but it’s just those tight games where you get a call go against you here and there and guys maybe gripping their sticks a little bit tighter than they might normally do.
“We’re certainly not out of anything by a long stretch.”