Payette plots weekend to remember for Steeldogs

ANDRE Payette takes his Sheffield Steeldogs into Coventry with no intention of their English Premier League play-off weekend ending early.

The South Yorkshire club have already surpassed expectations this season, combining a third-place regular season finish in the league with a Cup final runners-up spot.

Now, they come face-to-face in a mouth-watering play-off semi-final clash with arch-rivals Manchester Phoenix, coached by former Sheffield Steelers forward Tony Hand, who will - whenever his side’s campaign finally ends - be swiftly whisked away to take up his duties as Great Britain head coach at the world championships which starts in Slovenia on Sunday night.

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Not since 2007-08 have the Steeldogs - then known as the Scimitars - reached the last four of the post-season under then coach Neil Abel, now assistant at city neighbours Steelers. They have never reached the final.

Payette, recently voted EPL coach of the year, intends to end that disappointing run and expects the second semi-final on Saturday to produce an “electric” atmosphere.

“We couldn’t have hoped for a better match-up in the semi-final,“ said Payette, who steered his side into the last four thanks to a 4-2 aggregate success over Basingstoke in the first round of the play-offs.

“They are a team who we match up best against I think. We are going to play as hard as we know we can.

“We have to compete and I know we will because our guys do not want their last game of the season to be a semi-final defeat to Manchester Phoenix.

“It’s the game that both sets of fans will be up for and I think it will create an electric atmosphere in Coventry and it’s match I can’t wait to be involved in.”

Crucially for the Steeldogs, netminder Ben Bowns will be with them all weekend, despite being picked for the Great Britain squad at the world championships in Slovenia.

“Despite all the rivalry between the two teams, Tony is one of my best friends in hockey,” added Payette.

“Ben will be with us all weekend if we need him to be and, if necessary, he’ll fly out to Slovenia on Monday. He’s a key piece for us and has been solid all season.

“He’s going to be a great goaltender and he’s been waiting for something like this weekend for a long time.”

During the regular season, the six-game series between the two sides ended all-square but rival coach Hand said previous meetings or recent form will have no effect on the outcome of the biggest match of the season between the two teams in Coventry.

“Everyone knows that you throw the form book out of the window at times like these,” said Hand.

“It’s all about who plays best on the day. It’s whoever wants it and whoever’s ready to show up. Obviously, Andre will have his team ready, like he has all season, and they have plenty of players who can be a danger.”

First on ice at the Skydome Arena on Saturday (3pm) will be regular season league champions and Guildford Flames, who defeated the Steeldogs in the EPL Cup final and won the play-offs in 2011.

Standing in the way of their pursuit of a unique treble will be Slough Jets, who finished fourth in the regular season and are coached by former Sheffield Steelers’ assistant coach Doug Sheppard.