THE HEAT is on the Basingstoke Bison as they face a top-of-the-table clash with local rivals the Guildford Flames on Saturday night.
The Surrey side are on fire, having won their last 10 games – a feat that has moved them up to second in the table behind the Herd.
However, the Flames have not found the Basingstoke Arena to be a happy hunting ground as they have lost on their last four league visits, including a defeat earlier this season.
Another bumper crowd is expected for what is undoubtedly the top game of the weekend in the English Premier League.
The Bison will be going all out to give their fans an early Christmas present and extend their lead at the summit to five points.
The Herd welcome back Zach Sullivan from international duty with Great Britain under-20s in the Ukraine, but fellow Bison Andy Melachrino picked up an injury in the same tournament and will miss the weekend.
With defencemen Sullivan returning and Kurt Reynolds back from injury last weekend, James Hutchinson, who was at the club as injury cover, has left the Herd.
Sheppard said: “He has done a great job for us and we wish him the best of luck for the future.”
Looking ahead to the crunch clash on Saturday (face-off is 6.30pm), Sheppard added: “This is a massive game, even if we are only at the halfway point of the season.
“They are the only side to have beaten us twice this year so we will be looking to tie the series so far and keep ourselves in front of them overall.
“They are the in form team and are playing well, but we want to keep our run going at home and take some wind out of their sails.”
Both sides have a lot of offensive weapons, with the Flames having the EPL’s leading points scorer in David Longstaff as well as top goal-getter Curtis Huppe.
Shep-pard is aware that these two players will be a major factor if the Flames are to win on Saturday.
The Bison boss said: “Longstaff is having an unbelievable year and Huppe is scoring about a goal a game so we have to make sure we keep them quiet.”
On Sunday (5.30pm face-off), the Bison will be looking to complete a four-point weekend as they travel to bottom side Telford Tigers.
It looks an easy two points, but in recent weeks the Shropshire outfit have added imports Juraj Senko and Dmitri Rodin to their side.
They have also seen the return of top Brit Scott McKenzie from Manchester so are a lot stronger than the side the Herd narrowly beat on home ice back in October.
Sheppard said: “With the new additions, they are going to be stronger for sure and it is a tough rink to play in.
“Telford are a hard working group of young guys, who will give their all for the team.”
The Herd’s third game in five days will be on Boxing Day when Sheffield Steeldogs visit in a game that has a face-off time of 4pm.