Team boss Carl Johnson insists a top-of-the-table finish is exactly what Panthers deserve.
The city side clinched their place at the SGB Championship summit with a fine 50-40 triumph against Lakeside in their final outing of the regular season last Saturday.
The success against the Hammers at their new Rye House home only served to add further class to by far the best away record in the second tier with Panthers having picked up a total of four wins and 20 points on their travels.
And Johnson’s men also showed vastly improved home form as they triumphed in eight of their 10 outings at Alwalton during a terrific campaign. A draw against Ipswich and a club record home drubbing at the hands of Workington were the only disappointments in front of their own fans.
It’s the first time Panthers have finished top of a league since their famous top-flight title triumph of 2016 and Johnson said: “It would be great if we could go all the way again this year. There’s no doubt in my mind we deserve to finish top. We’ve performed consistently well despite being hit with more than our fair share of injuries.
“We set ourselves the goals of improving our home form while also picking up points on the road – and we’ve done both of those things.
“But we also made it very clear to the riders before a wheel had even been turned that we wanted them to enjoy their racing.
“It’s clear from conversations we have that a lot of clubs put their riders under pressure to deliver results, but we feel we have the right environment to be successful. The togetherness and team spirit off the track is worth points on it.
“But we also know there is no trophy for being top. The hard work is just getting started in the play-offs.
“We’ve put ourselves into the position we wanted to be in and we’re all determined to finish the job.”
Panthers put their title challenge on the back-burner until next month as they now face their play-off semi-final opponents Lakeside in two other competitions.
Defending their KO Cup crown is the first priority as the teams do battle in back-to-back fixtures this Sunday to settle a quarter-final tie. It’s a 2pm start in the first leg at Rye House ahead of a 7pm return at the East of England Arena.
Johnson added: “Winning the KO Cup last season was a great experience and we will do all we can to keep hold of the trophy. Lakeside will be gunning for revenge. We need to make sure we’re in a position after the first leg to finish the job at home.”
Panthers call on one of their KO Cup winners of 2017 – Chris Harris – to guest at number one at Rye House. Frequent stand-in Ben Barker then takes over at home.
Redcar man Jordan Stewart has been booked to guest at reserve in both meetings.
Scunthorpe await the winners in the semi-finals. Workington and Newcastle are contesting another quarter-final for the right to face Edinburgh in the other semi.
Panthers and Lakeside then meet twice more next weekend in the last four of the Shield before renewing rivalries again in the play-off semi-finals early next month.