Sheffield Steelers: Aaron Fox puts side through wringer to get them fighting fight for curtain raiser
Aaron Fox subjected his new-look Sheffield Steelers' team to a pretty ferocious first two weeks of pre-season training, writes Bob Westerdale.
The energy-sapping regime had to happen if they are to be in any sort of shape for Nottingham Panthers, next Saturday, in the opening Challenge Cup fixture.
But the high-intensity training took its toll in the later stages of their final exhibition game, against MAC Budapest.
They made tired decisions and looked disjointed for a short spell, conceding three quick goals.
Flagging, as they may have been, they still hung on to a 5-4 win and can boast a three-out-of-three winning series against difficult and lively opposition in the Hungarians and, previously, HK Poprad of Slovakia.
Overall, there are many more plus-points than negatives:
* The goaltending due of Pavel Kantor and Tomas Duba is a clear upgrade on last year;
*There are goals in this team - and they come from all over;
*Feistiness is there when needed in the form of Anthony DeLuca - such a whirlwind of a player this term - Brendan Connolly, Tanner Eberle and Aaron Johnson, to name a few;
*Youth is flourishing amongst the veteran heads: it is a delight to see how quickly the likes of Alex Graham, 16, and Jordan Griffin, 17, are catching up with the other young guns Cole Shudra and Kieran Brown;
*The new, older heads have bonded quickly with each other, understand what is required and look like leading the type of Steelers' team that the fans were demanding last year.
Let's not get ahead of ourselves, though. Weightier opposition at a domestic level will be a more exacting examination of whether Fox has fixed it.
And it will be a few weeks into the season, before we possess a fuller grasp of the team's potential and whether they can close the gap on Belfast Giants and Cardiff Devils.
But I cannot see the Steelers of 2019-20 regularly collapsing to teams the likes of Glasgow Clan, (1-6, 0-6) Guildford Flames (1-5) and Dundee Stars, (1-6) as we witnessed previously.
The odd bump in the road will occur - one of the few black marks in pre-season has been the crop of injuries. Losing players at this level puts undue strain on rosters.
But this hard-working side has character and a high hockey intellect - so let's watch this space and see if they deliver.
Saturday's Arena win had 7,000 fans on the edge of their seats, because of the late Budapest revival and the on-going side show of centre John Armstrong pitting his wits against ex Steeler Josh Pitt.
Man of the match Eberle, from whom we can justifably expect a dynamic season, scored twice, with further strikes from Michael Davies, Nikolai Lemtyugov and DeLuca.
Fox saw a lot of positives in his team and said he was both happy and proud after "bagging" his men on training ice over the previous two weeks.
He accepts his team would not be at 100 per cent fitness levels by the time Nottingham roll into the Arena on Saturday. But they are getting there.
One of his priorities will be getting Kantor and Duba in the best shape possible - he'll again split goaltending duties against Panthers.