SteveThornton has no fear of facing the Nottingham Panthers on their own ice after the Belfast Giants secured qualification for the Play-off finals for the first time since 2007.
The glamour weekend that brings the curtain down on the season has regularly eluded the Giants and this will be only the fourth time in their 10 seasons in existence that Belfast has been represented at the finals.
The dubious reward for a 10-3 aggregate annihilation of the Newcastle Vipers is a play-off semi-final against the host team in the National Ice Centre.
It’s the draw that nobody wants when they head to the Final Four weekend, but Thornton is confident that home advantage can be evened out by his team.
“As we finished higher in the league than Nottingham then I expect we’ll have a higher seeding which means we’ll be regarded as the home team and that will give us an advantage,” said Thornton.
“We’ll have the last line change, which means if there’s a match-up that we don’t like then we can change it.
“In these games, where if you win you progress and if you lose you’re done, it shouldn’t matter where you are playing. You go out and empty everything onto the table and hope that it’s enough.
“It won’t be like a normal away game for us. We’ll travel on Friday and sleep in comfortable beds the night before the game.
“We’ll have as many people cheering us on as Nottingham too, I’m sure. The Sheffield fans won’t be backing Nottingham, that’s for sure.”
The Giants built up a 4-1 lead over the Vipers on Saturday night, backed by a full house at the Odyssey.
A one-hour delay to the game and the clocks going forward in the middle of the night meant a lot less sleep for the players before they boarded the Belfast-Stranraer ferry yesterday morning.
It didn’t show last night as the Giants shot out of the blocks, opening the scoring with less than seven minutes on the clock, thanks to Jeff Szwez’s third goal of the tie — scored on the powerplay.
Newcastle struck on a powerplay of their own three minutes later to keep themselves in the
contest, through Jerramie Domis.
It was always going to be tough for the Vipers to turnaround a three-goal deficit and when Evan Cheverie followed up his Saturday night double with 12 minutes gone the home side’s task got even more difficult.
Matic Kralj levelled the score on the night four minutes into the second period, but that was as good as it got for the Vipers as the Giants moved up the gears to make sure there was no comeback.
Thornton himself scored short-handed while Szwez was off the ice, Pat Bateman scored on a powerplay early in the third period, before a rarely used tactic aimed at getting Newcastle back into the game backfired on coach Rob Wison, in his last game in charge of the Vipers.
When awarded a powerplay Wilson pulled goaltender Michel Robinson to give his team six skaters against four, but Colin Shields picked up the puck and scored short-handed into an empty net.
Cheverie netted again with 10 minutes to go, but by that stage Giants fans who had delayed booking their flight to Nottingham were already doing so.