UP until just under two weeks ago, had you asked Sheffield Steelers’ players and coaches if there was one team they would prefer to avoid during the Elite League play-offs, the collective answer would probably have been ‘Coventry Blaze.’
Although they won the first three meetings of the season against the West Midlands club – two of those coming in the group phase of the Challenge Cup – the Steelers then came off second-best in six subsequent league games with Chuck Weber’s side.
Then, on March 13, the two sides went head-to-head in their final meeting of the regular season and, all of a sudden, everything clicked for Paul Thompson’s team against his former club – four powerplay goals going a long way towards seeing the Steelers record a 6-3 triumph over a team who had proved their 2015-16 nemesis.
It got the proverbial “monkey” off their back and has given Steelers’ head coach Thompson and his players added belief ahead of this week’s quarter-final encounter against Coventry, the first leg of which takes place at SkyDome Arena tonight before the two teams reconvene at Sheffield Arena tomorrow (5pm).
Despite their inferior head-to-head record against Coventry, the Steelers go into the weekend rightly tipped to reach the Final Four Weekend at Nottingham’s National Ice Centre next week.
That favourites tag comes – not surprisingly – due to the fact that the Steelers enter the post-season in search of the double, having pipped Cardiff Devils to the regular season championship by two points after last Sunday’s 3-1 win at Fife Flyers.
And given his team had to win their last five games to clinch a fifth Elite League title for the club, Thompson is convinced his players are a “different animal” to how they were earlier in the season.
“I think beating them last time at our place was not only big for us in terms of winning the title, but it got that monkey off our back considering how we’d lost so many in a row against them before that night,” said Thompson, who is hoping long-term injured forward Colton Fretter may return at some point over the weekend after taking part in full practice all week.
“They are a difficult team to play against, they have great goaltending and a solid defensive system. But I feel like we are a different animal now coming into this.
“We had to deal with the pressure of not beating Coventry over the season, but that is nothing compared to what we’ve been through over the last five or six weeks. I think we’ve grown as a group and while we don’t underestimate them as a group one iota – obviously because of our record against them – people shouldn’t underestimate us either because we are a group who are going the right direction and we want to make sure we make it to Nottingham.
“When we brought the players back in on Wednesday after a couple of days off we worked them extremely hard – like we have all year. But their attitude was first class and has been all season.
“The reason we are champions is because we don’t give them days off, we don’t let them skip gym sessions and that has got us through these last few weeks when it really mattered.”
By contrast, the regular season has proved disappointing for Coventry for a second season running, even though they comfortably finished in the eighth and final play-off spot.
After peaking at the perfect time to win the play-off final against Sheffield last year, more was expected of them this time around in the regular season.
But having finished the 2015-16 season in typically inconsistent form, they will need to improve sharply if they hope to repeat their post-season achievements of 12 months ago.
Former Steelers’ forward Ashley Tait – who captained the Blaze to a treble under Thompson back in 2004-05 – says he and his team-mates will take confidence from their superior head-to-head record against the league champions.
“There is a big rivalry between the two clubs now – more so this season, but I think that is because of how results have gone,” said Tait.
“We’ve got a good record against the Steelers and that will give us confidence going in.
“It has been disappointing so far this season – it hasn’t gone according to plan and it is very similar to how things went last season.”