TO SAY Elite League rivals Sheffield Steelers and Nottingham Panthers are familiar with each other this season is, perhaps, putting it mildly.
In all, the biggest rivals in the British game have already faced-off against each other 12 times during 2016-17 – eight of those meetings have come in the league, with four Challenge Cup encounters on top.
The Steelers have enjoyed the better of it, winning eight encounters, including five in the head-to-head league series between the two.
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This weekend pits the two against each other twice more in the two-legged play-off quarter-finals.
At stake is a place in next week’s Final Four Weekend held every year in Nottingham’s own National Ice Centre rink.
It is reason enough for the Panthers to be desperate to make it through and defend the post-season crown they won for a fifth time last year.
Unlike the Steelers – the Panthers have already lifted silverware this season when becoming the first British club to lift the Continental Cup.
That achievement has gained them entry into next season’s Champions Hockey League, something which the Steelers will be forced to do without for the first time in three years after missing out on a third straight regular season Elite League title to Cardiff Devils.
After also losing out to Cardiff in the Challenge Cup Final, it means the Steelers face the prospect of ending a campaign without silverware for the first time since 2013.
We’re in good form and we’re playing with harmony so we’ve just got to make sure we carry it on this weekend – but it’s going to be a tough old battle.Sheffield Steelers’ head coach, Paul Thompson
As a result, this latest double-header really boils down to who is more desperate.
Steelers’ head coach Paul Thompson believes his players possess both the talent and the determination required to ensure their season ends on the perfect high next Sunday at the home of their fiercest rivals.
“Nottingham haven’t had the season they would have liked and you could also say the same about ourselves, so it’s a massive weekend for both clubs,” said Thompson.
“We’ve lost in the Challenge Cup Final and we’ve also missed out in the league this year so this is the one that we are totally focusing on and we’ve had some time to focus on it now and we’ve been playing really well during these past few games.
“We’re in good form and we’re playing with harmony so we’ve just got to make sure we carry it on this weekend – but it’s going to be a tough old battle.”
While former GB men’s coach Thompson would prefer the league to one day adopt a more traditional play-off format favoured by every other hockey-playing nation – which pits teams against each other in five or seven-game best of series – he understands why the Final Four Weekend provides such a fitting finale to the EIHL season.
It has been a while since the 51-year-old tasted success in the play-offs since the EIHL launched in 2003, winning the grand finale just the once with former club Coventry Blaze as part of a unique treble in 2005.
“It is a special weekend because you’ve got fans from all over the country and it’s like a carnival atmosphere and we desperately want to be part of that,” added Thompson, whose Steelers’ team failed to reach the semi-finals last season after losing out at the first hurdle to eventual runners-up Coventry.
“It’s a very different kind of play-off (format) to everywhere else in the world where you have a best-of-seven series and you work your way through several rounds .
“In these play-offs, you can’t afford to make any mistakes because it’s just the two games and an aggregate score and then a semi-final and then a final.
“So it is just four games to win a play-off trophy which means you have to be on your game.”
Despite coming off second-best in the majority of games against the Steelers, Panthers’ coach Corey Neilson believes his side can ‘even the score’ somewhat by ensuring the season comes to a premature end for Thompson and his players.
““We’re confident when we’re at our best” said Neilson.
“We’ll have to be defensively sound and if that happens then I know we’ll get our chances.”