Panthers ready to spike Steelers' title challenge
LEAGUE leaders Nottingham Panthers will be bidding to put paid to Sheffield Steelers' title hopes tonight when the bitter rivals clash in a table-topping showdown at a sold out National Ice Centre (7.30pm).
The Steelers come into the game full of confidence on the back of a seven-game winning streak, knowing defeat to Panthers could all but end their chances of a fourth Elite League title.
They are currently three points adrift of Panthers, who also have a game in hand with ten games left to play after this one, including another home meeting with the Steelers.
Fans both sides of the Notts-Yorks divide are calling it a 'must-win' game – but if they are anticipating a wide open 'run-and-gun' affair, they could be disappointed.
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In Craig Kowalski, Panthers have the best goaltender in the league while his counterpart John DeCaro has conceded just one goal in the past three games.
He has been the backbone to Steelers' recent good run, which has included a 5-2 home victory over Panthers, with the emphasis on ultra-tight defence while hitting teams on the break.
And that game-plan will surprise few people, not least Panthers coach Corey Neilson who outlined the facts in simple terms as he looks to steer his side to their first league title since the club was reformed in 1980.
He laughed: "We're three points up on them and hopefully that will be five by the end of tonight, plus two more for the game in hand makes it seven. That's it . . . done!"
More seriously, though, Neilson added: "They are a good team. They've won seven in a row and are playing well right now.
"But we've been pretty consistent too and I hope that will continue, especially if we play like we did in the first period against Fife last weekend when we were except- ional.
"We moved the puck very well, the attention to detail was very high and on top of that, we were physical and won our battles.
"There is pressure, though, for both teams as we know each other well.
"But you can bet it will be another good game for the fans."
In truth, despite the importance of the game to both teams, Panthers have another chance to kill off Sheffield if it doesn't go their way tonight.
Steelers are back in Nottingham on March 9 – but you can be sure Neilson doesn't entertain that scenario as third-placed Belfast are also waiting in the wings should either side split up.
Panthers are currently two points ahead of the Giants, after their win in Dundee last night, and the sides meet in a double-header at the Odyssey next month.
Both teams are expected to be at full strength tonight, with Panthers' Jonathan Weaver suffering no reaction to his injury after returning for last weekend's wins against Braehead and Fife.
Panthers also have the option of bringing in spare import David Beauregard.
But the veteran winger may well instead be utilised when Panthers travel north to play Braehead in Glasgow tomorrow (7pm).
Tonight – Braehead v Coventry; Panthers v Sheffield.
Tomorrow – Edinburgh v Coventry; Belfast v Sheffield; Braehead v Panthers; Fife v Hull.
Sunday – Dundee v Sheffield; Cardiff v Belfast; Hull v Braehead; Fife v Coventry.