No time for Sheffield Steelers to dwell on Cup exit as biggest challenge of season looms

IN a week which has seen rival fans regale in Sheffield Steelers' embarrassing Challenge Cup semi-final exit, captain Jonathan Phillips insists the defending Elite League champions have already moved on.

Jonathan Phillips.

In reality, what else can they do?

With the regular season title race opening up even more in the past seven days – helped in large part by leaders Cardiff Devils’ 3-1 defeat at Fife Flyers on Thursday night – Phillips and his team have no time to dwell on a forgettable midweek which saw them limp out of a competition they have never won in the EIHL era.

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The damage was done at Ice Sheffield on Tuesday night when Paul Thompson’s team were humiliated 8-0 in front of their own fans. What made it worse was that it came at the hands of their fiercest rivals, Nottingham Panthers.

The following night, with all hope of reaching next Sunday’s final at Sheffield Arena gone, the Steelers managed to salvage some pride in a much more even game, although they still came off second-best at the National Ice Arena, going down 2-0 to hand the Panthers a 10-0 aggregate win.

But every cloud has a silver lining, with the Steelers no doubt regaining a little spring in their step yesterday when news came through of Cardiff’s setback in Kirkcaldy, a result which saw them fail to make the game in hand they had on their South Yorkshire rivals count for anything.

Going into this weekend, Cardiff remain two points ahead of the Steelers, with Nottingham four points further back with a game in hand after last night’s 5-1 defeat at home to Belfast Giants, who moved fourth to within a point of their East Midlands hosts as a result of their win.

Both Cardiff and Sheffield still have to face Nottingham twice more in the schedule, adding up to a fascinating four weeks.

Phillips admitted that the nature of their loss to Nottingham was particularlly hard to stomach, but stressed there was little time for the four-time EIHL champions to feel sorry for themselves ahead of tonight’s visit from Dundee Stars and tomorrow’s trip to Coventry Blaze.

“It wasn’t through a lack of effort why we lost to Nottingham,” said Phillips, now in his 10th season with the Steelers.

“It was just one of those nights where, whatever we tried, it just didn’t come off and just went wrong.

“But that sometimes happens, it’s one of those things and there are no excuses for it.

“It was just a very bad night at the office.

“The thing to remember is that nights like that don’t come along very often and during the six months or so that this particular bunch of players have been together now, I think we’ve generally been pretty solid and put in some very good performances.

“It was uncharacteristic of us and we obviously weren’t happy with ourselves. But we were able to go down to Nottingham the night after for the second leg and perform well which was important for us because they are tough games to play in when you’re going into it so far behind.

“You’ve got to find a different kind of motivation for that kind of situation and I think ours was simply just to do with how bad we had played the night before and how we owed something, not only to ourselves and the coaches, but also to the fans who had paid good money to come and watch. It would have been bad enough to lose to any team the way we did on Tuesday night, but the fact that it was the first leg 0f a Challenge Cup semi-final and also against our fiercest rivals just made it a lot worse for everybody involved.”

The week had started so well for the Steelers after they had picked up a first win of the season at Cardiff, a 5-4 victory cancelling out the 4-3 loss against the leaders on home ice the previous night.

On their way to winning the regular season championship under previous coach Gerad Adams last season, the Steelers lost a total of 17 games, 13 of those in regulation. They have already suffered the same number of defeats this season, meaning there is little, if any room for any further setbacks.

“It really sucks we’re not going to the final – particularly as it is in Sheffield – but we still have three trophies to play for and we’re right in the mix,” said Phillips.

“But we have to forget about it as quickly as we can and move on. We can’t dwell on it as we’ve got two huge games this weekend.”

Coached by former Steelers’ player and assistant coach Marc LeFebvre, Dundee arrive in South Yorkshire tonight looking to regain ground lost on both Fife and Belfast in recent weeks.

Tomorrow’s trip to Coventry – where the Steelers have picked up just a point from their three previous league visits this season – will present an even tougher challenge given Chuck Weber’s team are locked in a battle for the eighth and final play-off spot with a resurgent Manchester Storm.

“The fact they are back in the bottom two makes them more desperate because they are in a real scrap for that final spot,” added Phillips.

“We know how tough it is there and we know it’s going to be one of those games where we have to win every single puck, every single battle and take our chances when they come along.”