MARK THOMAS believes his Sheffield Steelers’ team will meet a Nottingham Panthers roster tomorrow that has been seriously upgraded in defensive talent since the season started.
Then, Panthers were known as an ultra-offensive side with the Achilles heel of a suspect defence.
But personnel switches and a change in outlook has made Saturday’s Play Off semi-final opponents a far more dangerous adversary, he reckons.
“Panthers have had a lot of firepower all season and right now they have a good defence too” Cheshire-born Thomas said.
He said the recruitment of Czech defenceman Angel Nikolov (one time draft pick for San Jose Sharks) in October and Jeremy Van Hoof, who has twice been drafted in the NHL by Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh, in February, had stiffened up their blue line.
“They seem to have settled down now and got stronger at the back end as the season went on.
“But we had the best defence in the league throughout the whole campaign, so fingers crossed, that will continue into the Play Offs.”
Thomas’s evaluation of Panthers’ improved defence draws disagreement from team-mate Derek Campbell, who still considers that part of the team their weakest point.
“Van Hoof? Would you pick him ahead of a Steve Munn or a Jerramie Domish? Ofcourse you wouldn’t” growled the forward.
Time will tell whether Panthers’ rearguard is Play Off winning material.
Thomas, meanwhile, expects the semi final at Nottingham’s NIC will be the same chaotic, passionate spectacle as has become the norm.
“It should be great for the supporters, they usually are. We have done well against them, but this is a one-off game.
“People say that we will have an advantage playing the first semi final in the afternoon, as there is more rest for the team that goes through.
“But our focus is solely on the Nottingham game, we won’t be thinking about any final until after the game.
“You cannot take your attention away from a team with such a deep offensive foster - David-Alexandre Beauregard, David Clarke and Jade Galbraith are all quality players. “There is not one particular goalscorer you have to contain - you have to stick with them all.
“On top of that you have to keep your emotions in check as much as possible, to avoid the penalty box, as they have a really good Power Play.”