Steve Thornton: Belfast Giants need to show some steel against leaders
Steve Thornton has made no attempt to play down the significance of what he terms 'the biggest weekend of the season' in the Elite League title race.
With top spot up for grabs for his Belfast Giants team if they can beat current leaders, the Sheffield Steelers, in a massive Odyssey Arena double header tonight and tomorrow night (both 7pm) that is almost impossible to do anyway.
However, rather than take the pressure off his players and treat it like any other game, Thornton is building up the importance of the twin clashes - particularly because he believes that his men perform at their best in the big games.
That has been the case lately, with the Giants winning six out of their last seven matches, all of which have been against teams either in their own conference or who have been on a run of hot form.
Now it is Thornton's team who have hit a hot run at just the right time, with the regular season just passing the halfway stage, meaning that there are a number of huge games looming on the next three months.
"It the biggest weekend of the season so far because we're going up against Sheffield twice and it gives us the opportunity to move above them at the top of the table," said Thornton.
"It's big for us in particular because if we can get into first place it will say a lot about how we have coped with the adversity in terms of the number of injuries that we have had and it will set us up really well for the rest of the season.
"It's more than just being able to go top though. We are on a good run, we are playing well, we are creating chances and we're scoring goals. If we can keep that going through two games against Sheffield it will increase our confidence even more."
Thornton is well aware of the problems that have prevented the Giants from being at the top already. Too many times this season they have switched off for short periods and let points slip through their fingers.
That was never more in evidence than last Sunday night when Braehead Clan scored three goals in as many minutes in Glasgow and there was no way back for the Giants after that.
Doing that against a team with the power and scoring ability of Sheffield will be costly.
"These aren't games where we can trade scoring chances and still hope to win," said Thornton.
"You can't even take it a game at a time or even a period at a time, it's one shift at a time and we've got to impose ourselves on them by getting right into a forechecking game from the off, being strong in defence and getting pucks on their nets and hope to break them down early.
"If you allow Sheffield to dictate the game you could be in for a long night."
Mark McCutcheon's swift return to fitness after missing Sunday night's game against Braehead is a huge boost for Thornton.
He delivered a goal and an assist in the 9-3 win over the Dundee Stars on Tuesday and while his spot is guaranteed, Thornton is convinced that Curtis Huppe - who has been signed as injury cover - can have an impact during the remainder of the season.
"Curtis Huppe did well in Braehead, but Mark McCutcheon was ready to come back into the line up and that line has some chemistry that is almost tangible, so he was always going to come in," said Thornton.
"Curtis has shown that he can do what we ask of him whenever he is needed and I expect him to play a part as the season goes on."