MARK MATHESON knows what it takes to win a Continental Cup – and believes Sheffield Steelers should stick to what they know best in order to succeed this weekend in Belarus.
The Steelers begin their three-day quest to seal a 2018-19 Champions Hockey League place when they take on Kazakhstan’s Nomad Astana this afternoon.
Similarly tough encounters follow against hosts Yunost Minsk on Saturday night, before a Sunday afternoon meeting with Italy’s Ritten Sport.
Matheson, in his first season with the Steelers, won this competition two years ago when playing for Rouen Dragons, the French club sealing a place in the CHL the following season – the last time the Steelers competed in European ice hockey’s premier club competition.
The 33-year-old classy defenceman has proved to be one of the Steelers’ most consistent performers this season, the latest stage in a career which has seen him make almost 400 appearances in the American Hockey League as well as spend time playing in Norway, France and Sweden’s much-revered top-flight.
Unsure of what to expect before arriving for his first taste of the UK’s Elite League, Matheson quickly adapted to life in South Yorkshire, both on and off the ice and is confident Paul Thompson’s team can lift silverware this season – starting this weekend in Minsk.
“We’ve got a good group of guys here and the hockey has been good too,” said Matheson. “I just try and make the best of every situation that I’m in and it’s been a good one so far in Sheffield and I’m hoping there are better things to come still.
“I’ve played in quite a few places in Europe so the key really is to come into things with an open mind and this has been no different for me.
“This weekend will be a fun change of pace. It’s coming right in the middle of our season and is a break from the norm for us to go and play different teams with a different mindset. It will give us a chance to focus on what we do well and gives us a good chance to win a cup.”
In the previous round in Denmark, the Steelers were beaten 7-1 by Minsk on the opening night, although both teams qualified for this weekend’s round-robin final round after the South Yorkshire club rallied to win their next two games.
Matheson admits it was a different style of hockey that the Steelers encountered in all three games in Copenhagen in November and he expects to encounter similar differences this weekend. But he believes he and his team-mates can cope with the challenges ahead.
“It will be good for us to stick to our natural style when we play these other teams because they are not used to us, the same way we’re not used to them,” he added.
“You just have to be smarter when you play in Europe and this is a perfect opportunity for us to improve on that side of our game. We need to be patient, stick to our game and try not to worry too much about the officiating or any other outside factors.”
A 5-1 defeat at Belfast Giants on Saturday night ended a run of seven straight wins for the Steelers, but Matheson insisted the setback at the SSE Arena was no unlikely to derail the momentum built up prior to that game.
“Saturday aside, in the last few weeks things have been going a lot better for us,” he said.
“There’s certainly more of a belief in our identity and what we do well and as a team we are all buying in – that always makes a big difference.”
New American winger Eric Neiley hooked up with the Steelers yesterday, his late arrival last week meaning he had to travel out a day later due to visa issues.
Young forward Liam Kirk has not made the trip after he became ill late on Tuesday.
Despite the long travel day endured by the team and support staff on Wednesday, head coach Thompson believes arriving earlier than they did before the start of the previous round will serve his players well.
“You could see in Copenhagen in that first 10 minutes against Minsk, we were still on the plane,” he said. “So to have this extra day of preparation here to run through some of our plays and video is very welcome.”
You just have to be smarter when you play in Europe and this is a perfect opportunity for us to improve on that side of our game.Sheffield Steelers’ defenceman, Mark Matheson.