Devils must go back to basics

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The showpiece of the British season faces off today at Wembley Arena with the first Premier Championship semi-final pitting Cardiff Devils, last season's champions, against Sheffield Steelers, the defeated finalists. This is followed by Nottingham Panthers versus Edinburgh Racers, with the victors meeting tomorrow.

John Lawless, the Devils coach, is not, however, confident that the 12- 1 dismissal of Steelers last time can be repeated with such authority. "They are way tougher and strengthened defensively in front of the net. And up front they have Kevin Priestlay, who's a much better import than they had last year.''

Steelers were the side who ended Devils' unbeaten home run of 50 matches a month ago, with Tommy Plommer scoring the winning goal in a 4-3 thriller with 90 seconds left. "We've got to try and forget that,'' Lawless said, "but, again, it was their defence that made the win.'' But Cardiff also have a defender capable of holding his own. The Canadian-born Dutch dual national Jamie Van Der Horst joined Devils with a baptism of fire, turning out against Panthers in the Benson and Hedges Cup final, which Panthers won 7-2. "He's an integral part of the team,'' Lawless said. "He's solid in defence, he's not big but he's compact and can hit in the corners. But we know Steelers. We have to be patient, defensive and basic.''

The Panthers coach, Mike Blaisdell, takes the same attitude against Racers. "They seem to be more disciplined in the playoffs than in the league and we have to make sure we keep up pressure defence. We can beat them if we can close down Tony Hand and Ivan Matulik [first and third in the end- of-season scoring list] and if we can hold a two to three-goal advantage, I'm sure we can make the final.''

Lawless also expects to meet Panthers tomorrow and with the addition of the extra rest-time, Devils would be favourites for the title. But Steelers, who froze last year on their Wembley debut, are now much more experienced - the possibility is that Devils and Steelers will so want to win that whoever is triumphant will be so tired that the trend of first semi-final winners becoming final winners could be bucked this year.