Steelers primed and ready for first Panthers clash

WHILE player-coach Ryan Finnerty will say his Sheffield Steelers team are focused solely on tonight’s Elite League trip to Dundee Stars, players could be forgiven for already having one eye on tomorrow’s first showdown of the season against Nottingham Panthers.

It may be the Challenge Cup that brings Corey Neilson’s side to the Motorpoint Arena (5pm) but the Steelers’ are expecting their biggest crowd of the season.

Steelers go into the weekend back to full-strength – long-term injury absentee Jonathan Phillips aside – with both defenceman Chad Huttel (concussion) and top goalscoring forward Neil Clark (ankle) back in the line-up.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

The first league meeting between Steelers and Panthers is not until November 12 in Nottingham but Finnerty – himself recently recovered from a troublesome back injury – believes any game between the two clubs is likely to be a high-octane affair.

“I don’t think it would matter if it was a pre-season game, it means everything to both sets of fans,” said Finnerty.

“I’m excited to be back involved in it. I did miss this rivalry when I was at Cardiff. These are the sort of games that you live for.”

Finnerty said he was quickly made aware of the importance of the fixture when he first arrived at Sheffield as a player back in 2007.

“When you see how passionate the fans are it can’t help but drive you that extra mile,” added Finnerty. “We’ve got some guys who are new to the whole thing but they’ve been made aware that this is the one fixture the fans want to win more than anything else.”

Nottingham arrive in Sheffield in fine form, sitting second in the table, ahead of the Steelers by virtue of having won more games in regulation. Their two losses have both been by the odd goal against Belfast and in a remarkable 13-goal thriller at the NIC against Coventry.

Steelers go into the game on the back of a five-game winning streak in the league, the latest being an impressive win after a shoot-out at Cardiff Devils last Sunday.

And while Panthers are often regarded as being a team with more flair and skill than most in the UK’s top flight, Finnerty is confident he players possess the necessary aptitude for hard work to dent their fierce rivals title bid.

“They have got a very skilled team this year and we’ve got a very hard-working team,” said Finnerty. “They’ve got a lot of depth and if we are going to have any chance against them we got to make sure we outwork them in every area.

“Some guys rise to the big occasion, while other players just can’t seem to. We can’t get carried away with the occasion and we’ve got to make sure we stick to our systems, play hard, stay focussed and make sure we don’t get over-excited because that can happen.”

Twitter: @philarra