Ice hockey: Panthers seek home truths

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The Independent Online
NOTTINGHAM PANTHERS already have an important psychological edge over Sheffield Steelers going into tomorrow's Challenge Cup final.

Coach Mike Blaisdell's Panthers will be the "home" team at the Sheffield Arena having won a vital toss of the coin. In their own building, Steelers will be sat on the away bench and in their away strip, although rights are still being resolved with regard to the dressing room due to an earlier agreement.

Crucial for Blaisdell, however, is that he will have the last line change, allowing him to match up whichever players are needed to combat the prolific Ed Courtenay/Tony Hand/Ken Priestlay triumvirate. The trio have been the key to Steelers' success in the competition this season, and Blaisdell knows if he can shut them down then his side should end up with more silverware.

Having already tasted victory in the Arena in December when the Panthers won the Benson and Hedges Cup, Blaisdell said: "Our game plan has to centre around Courtenay, Hand and Priestlay. We can't allow them to stroll around and act like it's a Sunday picnic. I can assure them it won't be like that against us. We won the coin toss, which I think is an important factor. It means we're the `home' team in Sheffield, so we're going to go in, take charge and treat the place like it's our building.

"We're also going to have 3,000 fans or more there as well. So it's not as if we're going in without any support. I think the home ice advantage is diluted slightly because of the fact we're going to have a big crowd."

Blaisdell was able to go on a scouting mission last night as he was Sky's expert summariser in Steelers' 7-2 play-off mauling of London Knights.

Although his side has lost all four games in Sheffield this season, Blaisdell said: "Some of the things London were doing we would never do. We're not going to allow them that much time on the puck. They were allowed to stroll through the neutral zone and they will pay the price if they try that against us.

"We'll try to knock them around a little bit. It will be good clean, hard hockey, but there will be no prisoners taken. We're coming after this cup and we're going to play it tough."

Sheffield coach Don McKee admitted the coin toss was performed in his absence, with him only being informed via telephone later on, and he said it was a crucial one to win.

"It's nice to have your own bench and your home strip," said McKee. "But those are only small things which won't worry us. "Winning the coin toss allows them to have last change. Matching lines is important between two evenly-matched teams, but we'll just have to overcome that.

"Nottingham initially asked us to give up last change without the coin toss in favour of us having our own bench and colours. But he (Blaisdell) knew I wasn't going to give up the 50/50 chance of having last change. It's behind us now, so we'll just prepare as if we're the visiting team."

Play-off games this weekend see London at home to Manchester today in Group A, with Storm then hosting Bracknell Bees tomorrow. In Group B, Cardiff Devils travel to Ayr Scottish Eagles, also on Sunday.