NEWCASTLE Vipers hope the Challenge Cup provides some much-needed cheer after double defeats in the league dent their play-off chances at the weekend.
Vipers take on Nottingham Panthers in the first leg of the cup semi-final at Whitley Bay (7pm) in a game that will give player-coach Danny Stewart’s squad a break from the relentless league grind, after losing to their chief rivals for the final play-off spot, Dundee Stars, on Saturday and then suffering another reverse at Belfast Giants 24 hours later.
Those league struggles will be put to one side tonight, however, as Vipers concentrate on continuing their cup run against a Panthers side that beat Newcastle 11-4 at the Bay earlier this month.
“The Challenge Cup has been great for us,” said Canadian winger Mike Prpich.
“The Belfast win that propelled us into the play-off places was great. We will have something to prove against Nottingham after the way we played the last time they were at our place.
“It’s been a break from the league and it’s just that play-off mentality. There’s the old cliche that once the play-offs start you throw everything that happened in the regular season out of the window.”
Vipers’ off-ice problems have taken their toll this month as three players – Jamie Carroll, Dale Mahovsky and Patrik Forsbacka – left to take up offers elsewhere.
To make matters worse, the Elite League – which has given the Vipers’ permission to complete the season despite their money troubles – has imposed a transfer embargo, preventing Stewart from adding to his threadbare squad.
Prpich said: “We’re fine. It’s one of those things where it’s out of your control. I don’t think the mood’s changed at all since I got here, and we’ve had a couple of good wins which has really helped.
“Being around the league for the last three seasons I’ve seen clubs in a worse situation than us, people like Basingstoke. Knowing the way the Elite League is, it was kind of inevitable somebody would step in and help us.
“One thing that’s been great here is they’ve made sure we’ve paid on time every week, so that’s never been a worry. We were worried about people losing their jobs but it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen.
“They’ve taken care of us and Jaimie [Longmuir, Vipers’ general manager] has kept us updated as best he can.”
Vipers’ bosses have been working overtime to try and secure additional funding and Longmuir is hoping the fans will turn out for the cup semi-final to support their team – both on the ice and off it.
“Although we have managed to implement some support mechanisms which will allow the club to honour commitments for the remainder of the current season this is contingent upon a strong home support showing up and giving the team as much support as possible,” said Longmuir.
“Right now we have eight weeks to show potential investors that the North East can justify Elite League ice hockey and the only way we can do that is by showing a strong and passionate fan-base for the sport and club exists and attendances at the remaining fixtures will be a critical factor in showcasing this.”