Aiming high: Why Sheffield Steelers fancy their title chances again in ‘second half’

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TWO wins against the same opponent in as many nights has helped fuel Sheffield Steelers’ belief that they can go on and win a third successive Elite League title.

The defending champions, who have won five EIHL titles in all since the league began back in 2003, certainly helped their cause when following up Saturday’s nervy 2-1 victory over Manchester Storm with a slightly more comprehensive performance across the Pennines last night, which saw them prevail 4-1.

At exactly the halfway point of the regular season, it leaves the Steelers 10 points adrift of leaders Cardiff Devils with three games in hand.

Crucially, the two rivals – who have taken their title fight to the last weekend of the season for the last two years, with the Steelers prevailing on both occasions – still have to play each other three times.

If there is one thing that the Steelers need to improve on in 2017 it will be their form against Andrew Lord’s side, who have won all five previous league meetings this season.

The positive mood enjoyed by the Steelers this morning will contrast sharply with how they will have felt last Wednesday when coming to terms with two straight defeats at the hands of arch-rivals Nottingham Panthers.

But defenceman Ben O’Connor insisted that the South Yorkshire club had got over their disappointment in time to get the better of an in-form Manchester side ,who had risen to fifth in the table last week.

“We’re feeling good, the mood in the camp is good,” said O’Connor.

“I think we’ve still got a very good chance of winning the title. If you look at the past years, it is the back end of the season where we’ve excelled and I don’t see why that should be any different this year.

“We’ve had a bit of a blip in recent weeks, but everyone does at some stage of the season.

Guillaume Desbiens opened gthe scoring for the Steelers against Manchester on Saturday. Picture: Dean Woolley.

Guillaume Desbiens opened gthe scoring for the Steelers against Manchester on Saturday. Picture: Dean Woolley.

“This is where we kick on, learn from our mistakes and go forward.”

At Altrincham Ice Arena last night, the Steelers got on the scoresheet after 13 minutes when Mike Ratchuk found the net from a feed off Markus Nilsson on the powerplay.

The visitors then doubled their advantage before the end of the period through another powerplay strike, John Armstrong firing home with just 21 seconds left on the clock.

Manchester’s Mark Heatley received a 2+10 penalty for checking from behind, while Connor Varley was ejected from the game for high sticks as the contest intensified in what proved to be a goalless second period.

If you look at the past years, it is the back end of the season where we’ve excelled and I don’t see why that should be any different this year

Ben O’Connor, Sheffield Steelers.

But the Steelers extended their advantage again with a third goal at 52.02 when Ratchuk doubled his tally for the night.

Darian Dzuirzynski pulled one back just under five minutes later to give the home fans faint hopes of a comeback, but that was extinguished when Robert Dowd sealed both points by firing into the empty net with 11 seconds remaining.

On Saturday afternoon at Sheffield Arena, it was a far from pretty performance from the Steelers, who were desperate to bounce back after their dual disappointment against the Panthers earlier in the week.

It required a late powerplay goal from Levi Nelson to secure both points.

It was not until just under five minutes into the second period that the deadlock was actually broken, Guillaume Desbiens making a 5-on-3 powerplay count when he poked home following good work from Ben O’Connor and Mathieu Roy while the Storm’s Paul Swindlehurst and Dallas Ehrhardt were in the box.

That is how it remained until the third period when Manchester pulled level in controversial circumstances with just over 10 minutes left.

CLOSE: Mike Ratchuk, second left, No 44, goes close to scoring against Manchester on Saturday. Picture: Dean Woolley.

CLOSE: Mike Ratchuk, second left, No 44, goes close to scoring against Manchester on Saturday. Picture: Dean Woolley.

As Yared Hagos’s two-minute spell in the penalty box came to an end, Desbiens seemed to be impeded by Storm goaltender Mike Clemente as he attempted to track back following the breakdown of a Steelers’ attack.

Hagos came out of the box, but it was too late as, with Desbiens trailing the play, the extra man told for the visitors when Dziurzynski swept home from a feed from Varley.

But a hooking call on Heatley with just over two minutes remaining proved pivotal, Nelson forcing the puck home to the relief of an anxious New Year’s Eve crowd.

Steelers netminder, Ervins Mustukovs, comes under pressure from Manchester in Altrincham on Sunday night. Picture: Mark Ferriss.

Steelers netminder, Ervins Mustukovs, comes under pressure from Manchester in Altrincham on Sunday night. Picture: Mark Ferriss.