Title-winning Panthers will be up for the Cup
LEAGUE champions Nottingham Panthers will try to put all the euphoria of last weekend behind them tonight when they face Sheffield Steelers in the first leg of the Challenge Cup final.
And coach Corey Neilson, whose team has won the Cup for the past three seasons, says he now has to lift his players for the game at the Motorpoint Arena (7.30pm).
They quite rightly enjoyed the celebrations of securing a first league title for 57 years with their victory in Belfast.
And Neilson said: "The guys have been great all season and they know what's at stake.
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"But we still have to lift them for this one because this first leg is so important. And we don't want our biggest rivals coming into our building and winning a trophy do we?"
With Steelers' failure to win a league title again, coach Ryan Finnerty knows his job is on the line.
Hardly surprisingly, they have put all their emphasis on winning the Challenge Cup, a competition they apparently gave scant regard to while Panthers have been winning it.
By contrast, Neilson said: "I think it's a great competition; we love it. And the fact we've won the league championship doesn't mean the Cup is any less important to us.
"In fact it really is extremely important to us. We've loved this competition for years, while Sheffield have never looked at it that way in the past, but there has to be a balance."
In a game with so much at stake, Panthers' league-best special teams – the powerplay and penalty-killing – will be put to the test.
Neilson says the reason they have done so well is because he has intelligent players who can read situations and play desperate when necessary.
"Penalty-killing is a lot about personnel and we are thankful enough to have a lot of guys who understand what is needed," said Neilson. "We coach powerplay a lot. We tell them how other teams tend to play it and their set-ups so they know what to expect.
"For instance, Belfast play a spread system which is a bit unique. But there is a way to kill it and we show our guys how.
"Sheffield play the more traditional overload, which is having all five players down one side of the ice and there is a way to kill it.
"But each powerplay has a key guy. Sheffield will want to keep the puck away from David Ling on our powerplay. On theirs, they want to get it to (Jeff) Legue to shoot.
"Our guys have a pretty good recognition of that key guy. There is a lot of coaching involved but at the end of the day also a lot of desperation, too.
"You saw against Belfast, Pat Galivan diving down to block shots, putting his body on the line to keep out Robbie Sandrock, who shoots the puck at what must seem 400 mile-an-hour!
"Gally has huge welts all over his body, like he's been wearing a bullet proof vest.
"There is so much courage that these guys show and it is not easy."
With so much animosity between the sides the outcome could well hinge on staying out of the penalty box.
And Neilson says that they will play the way they've played all year with the emphasis on discipline.
"We're going to play it hard, play it fast and compete, which is what's made us successful," he said. "But it will always hinge on penalties.
"The thing is, every time you play a team with the quality of Sheffield, it can go wrong sometime as it showed when they beat us pretty badly (9-4).
"But we've enjoyed some success against them too. We will stick to what we've done well and see how it goes."
Nottingham Panthers will have a civic reception at Council House, Market Square, Nottingham on Saturday and will be on the balcony at 5.30pm.