Sheffield Steelers aiming to bring Nottingham Panthers back down to earth

IT has proved to be a momentous week for Nottingham Panthers -'“but one that Sheffield Steelers are hoping to end by bringing them back down to earth again with a hard bump.

Andreas Valdix tussles with Tim Billingsley earlier this season at Sheffield Arena. Picture: Dean Woolley.

The Panthers’ exploits in Europe’s Champions Hockey League this season have rightly earned them many plaudits, Corey Neilson’s team becoming the first British club to qualify for the knockout stages in the prestigious competition’s four-year-history.

And they have done it in some style, winning four of their six games to top their group before yesterday’s knockout draw in Helsinki pitted them against top Swiss side Zurich Lions in the last 16.

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Their progression marks another hugely important milestone for top-flight British hockey, with the Steelers also having played their own small part in the Elite League being treated with more respect throughout Europe in recent years.

The Panthers were the first British club to play in the CHL, winning just one of their group games in 2014-15 and finishing bottom. Back then, it is what was expected.

The following year, newly-crowned EIHL champions the Steelers were joined in the competition by Braehead Clan, both finding it as tough as the Panthers did. The Scottish club did register a win in their four group games, while Paul Thompson’s side were left empty-handed after finding themselves in a tough group which boasted eventual winners Frolunda Gothenburg.

As Britain’s sole representative the following season in 2016-17 the Steelers again finished bottom of their three-team group but, most notably, picked up their first-ever win when comfortably defeating Red Bull Salzburg.

Nottingham, so often under-achievers when it comes to landing the UK game’s most coveted regular season league title, qualified for this year’s CHL by virtue of creating another piece of history when becoming the first British club to win the Continental Cup – a tournament generally reserved for clubs from lower-ranked European nations.

And having won the EIHL play-off title back in April, it means the Steelers – so desperate to return to European hockey’s premier competition – have two routes open to them in order to seal a place for the 2018-19 CHL, either by emulating the Panthers or by winning the league title for a sixth time.

Tonight sees a first league meeting of the season between the two great rivals of the British game at a near-sellout Sheffield Arena.

Two Challenge Cup meetings this season have gone the way of the Steelers – but it is in the league where the bragging rights are always deemed more important.

Steelers’ head coach Thompson is full of praise for what the Panthers have achieved abroad, but his main focus is on ensuring his team are back among European hockey’s elite come August next year.

DETERMINED: Sheffield Steelers' head coach, Paul Thompson Picture: Dean Woolley

“I think the Panthers have done a fantastic job and they should be given credit for that,” said Thompson.

“It’s a natural progression for British teams which we have been a part of and the Panthers and Cardiff Devils (also in the competition this season but failing to reach the knockout stage) have done a terrific job.

“Yes, we want to get back into that competition and there are two routes open to us – we can do it either by winning the league or by winning the Continental Cup. We want to do both.”

And while there is praise and applause from the Steelers camp for the Panthers, that is where any thaw in the long-running hostility stops for Thompson and his players.

SUCCESS: Nottingham Panthers' head coach, Corey Neilson. Picture courtesy of Panthers' Images.

A third win over the Panthers is the only thing on Thompson’s mind ahead of a weekend which sees them head to Scotland 24 hours later to take on Dundee Stars.

“We’ve won both games against Nottingham this season, so we can’t have done much better than that really,” added Thompson.

“But we’ve got to scrap, we’ve got to hit, we’ve got to block shots – we’ve got to do whatever it takes.

“There’s going to be a huge crowd behind us at Sheffield Arena and it’s going to be a great atmosphere.

“We’ve done really well already by qualifying for the quarter-finals of the Challenge Cup, but we’ve got to play a hard-nosed and passionate game to get make sure we get these league points off Nottingham.”

After the disappointment of a heavy 5-1 loss at Coventry Blaze two weeks ago, Thompson was pleased to see his team respond with two gritty Cup wins last weekend – following up Saturday’s 3-2 triumph in Nottingham with a victory by the same margin at home to Braehead Clan.

DETERMINED: Sheffield Steelers' head coach, Paul Thompson Picture: Dean Woolley

But Thompson wants more from his players.

“It was a real battling performance in Nottingham and it took a lot out of everybody,” he added. “And against Braehead we did enough to get the win.

“But I want to see much more than just enough – I want to see way more passion, I want to see us on our toes, not on our heels and I want to see us taking the game to the opposition, but with a good structure.”

SUCCESS: Nottingham Panthers' head coach, Corey Neilson. Picture courtesy of Panthers' Images.