Only a fool would write off injury-ravaged Sheffield Steelers - Bob Westerdale

If Sheffield Steelers beat Nottingham Panthers on Saturday, 8,000 people will witness a bigger than normal 'derby' achievement.

Friday, 26th November 2021, 3:16 pm
Sheffield Steelers veteran Jonathan Phillips

In the great scheme of things, the match is a Challenge Cup non-event.

Both teams have already qualified for the next round and while local pride is at stake, Sunday's league match at Guildford Flames is more significant.

Even if Saturday's game was truly meaningful, it would be a big ask for Steelers to find their top form after a difficult week.

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Brendan Connolly could have suffered a season-ending knee problem while Marco Vallerand is also out. Robert Dowd has skated this week but it might not be prudent to risk him or Tanner Eberle, for fear of worsening their injuries.

When you add Keaton Ellerby to the absent list, the ex NHL defenceman is suspended, then Saturday perhaps has the makings of a long night at Sheffield Arena.

But only fools write off Steelers.

In the past, we have seen how a thin Sheffield roster can thrive.

This year's crop has lost three of their 10 home matches, the last game a 0-5 drubbing from Cardiff Devils.

They will want to do much, much better this time.

During games, when an already-under-strength side incurs the referee's wrath with a penalty, we often see the cream of the squad rise to the top.

The hardest workers work yet harder still.

Coach Aaron Fox has a lot on his mind right now, but he knows he can rely on his workaholic penalty-killers.

He watched them excel in the Continental Cup series in Denmark, last weekend.

With four skaters all out, the same players kept being called on to close down their power play opponents.

"Every guy absolutely worked their bag off," said the coach.

"The four who were out were all penalty kill guys so realistically I had Army, (John Armstrong) Lats, (Martin Latal) and Jonno (Jonathan Phillips) that were my only three forward penalty killers for most of the time.

"They were over the boards and back and over the boards and back."

Armstrong's form during the earlier EIHL campaign was described as "sporadic" in the Steelers TV commentary from Aalborg.

But Fox responded: "Army plays in all situations for us, he plays hard, his work ethic is through the roof right now.

"We asked a lot out of a lot of guys in that tournament, so asking guys to be offensive dynamos in the situation we are in right now was not an easy ask.

"It is about saving energy. You can't go b***s to the wall, shift in shift out, when you are as thin as we were three games in three nights. He played his heart out all weekend long."

One person who has been away from the camp recently is Cole Shudra.

Here's a fella who has been looking for a chance to stake his claim to play for Steelers since he was old enough to skate.

At 18 he made the team-sheet for Steelers' first time, but never really nailed down a place, despite widening his experience at Milton Keynes Lightning, Nittorps IK in Sweden and Coventry Blaze in this year's mini-series.

At NIHL club Leeds Knights, Shudra hoped to put in performances that would encourage Steelers' coach Aaron Fox to winch him back on to the EIHL bench.

And with the sudden crop of Steeler injuries, you would have expected Shudra to earn a place in the Sheffield team in Aalborg.

Sadly, it was not to be.

The 23-year-old utility player injured his shoulder during a Leeds Knights game at Peterborough Phantoms in October and has rehabilitating since.

In a few years' time, I sincerely hope Shudra will not look back at this time and ponder whether it affected his chances of flourishing at the top level.

But Shudra comes from good stock - and like the rest of the Steelers you can never rule him, or them, out.