'˜We've got a mountain to climb' admits Sheffield Steelers coach Paul Thompson

SHEFFIELD STEELERS coach Paul Thompson rarely criticises his players in public.

THE ONLY WAY IS UP: Paul Thompson was left fuming after a disastrous first period in Nottingham on Saturday night. Picture: Karl Denham/EIHL.

Time and time again he has stressed how talented, hard-working and conscientious his team has been in what has been – it has to be said – another typically long and gruelling campaign.

But, on Saturday night in Nottingham, Thompson offered no defence after watching his side hand a massive advantage to Nottingham Panthers in the Elite League play-off quarter-finals.

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The Panthers will arrive in Sheffield on Sunday evening with a healthy three-goal cushion after defeating the Steelers 5-2 in the first leg at the National Ice Arena.

At one stage, it looked like the visitors might be in danger of suffering a similar scoreline to the 8-0 reverse they suffered at the hands of their long-time rivals at Ice Sheffield in last season’s Challenge Cup semi-final.

But they rallied and halved the deficit before allowing a late fifth goal for the hosts from Chris Lawrence to leave their season hanging by a thread.

“I’m lost for words,” said a furious Thompson afterwards having seen his side enter the first period break 4-0 for a second time this year. “The message was that the first 10 minutes were the most important of this series - keep our discipline, take no stupid penalties.

“But we were standing still, making poor decisions and gave away two power-play goals and a delayed penalty goal. In that first period we got what we deserved.

FIRST STRIKE: Alex Nikiforuk (No 9) pounces to make it 1-0 to Nottingham against Sheffield Steelers on Saturday night. Picture: Karl Denham/EIHL.

“In between the first and second period we had to stop the rot and focus on winning five periods of hockey. We went out and played our game in the middle session, scored our goal to get back into the game.

“Then we scored the second and after being 4-0 down I was happy to take that score back to the Arena - we had momentum.

“But we go and shoot ourselves in the foot again with the Panthers fifth goal. We don’t help ourselves and have left a huge mountain to climb.”

One glimmer of hope for the Steelers is the dominance they have enjoyed over the Panthers in South Yorkshire during the regular season – winning five out of the six meetings between the two sides on home ice.

FIRST STRIKE: Alex Nikiforuk (No 9) pounces to make it 1-0 to Nottingham against Sheffield Steelers on Saturday night. Picture: Karl Denham/EIHL.

Two of those saw the Steelers win 8-1 and 6-1, but it is a very different Panthers beast they will be facing on Sunday evening, one desperate to ensure they are one of the four teams competing for the post-season silverware when the finals weekend comes around next week in their home town.

Thompson acknowledged the scale of the task facing his team come 5pm on Sunday by adding: “We have come unstuck every time we have faced a challenge this year. We have to be better, we have to be stronger. We have one game to put this right.”