AS timing goes, Sheffield Steelers’ proved to be near-perfect.
Having chased their rivals all season, it was not until just over two weeks ago that the Steelers went top of the Elite League standings for the first time.
And despite being pushed hard since that moment by Cardiff Devils – who had topped the table from early December until being replaced by Paul Thompson’s team on March 5 – it was a position the Steelers subsequently dod not relinquish.
They still had four games to negotiate, including two against arch-rivals Nottingham Panthers and one against bogey side Coventry Blaze.
But they won them all, including the grand finale in Kirkcaldy on Sunday night when a 3-1 win at Fife Flyers – allied to a 4-3 victory over Nottingham at home on Saturday – was enough to secure a record-breaking fifth regular season title, surpassing the mark they had held jointly with Thompson’s former team, Coventry.
It also meant they were the only the second team in the Elite League era – after Coventry – to win back-to-back titles, the Steelers having edged out Cardiff last season under former coach Gerad Adams.
The stunning triumph also guaranteed a second successive entry into Europe’s Champions Hockey League as the UK top-flight’s sole representative.
After two goals from Mathieu Roy and and an opening strike from Tyler Mosienko sealed victory in Fife, Thompson was quick to praise the efforts of his roster.
“It’s a magical feeling,” said Thompson, himself celebrating a fifth Elite League title as a coach.
“We’ve had to do this the hard way and we’ve never gone away and I’m so proud of this group.
“I know the kind of guys I’ve had in that room all year. I know they are a great bunch of individuals and a great bunch of athletes.
“We’ve pushed them hard all year, but they are the ones that should take the credit. We might be the ones who put the systems and procedures in place for them to achieve, but they still have to go out there, night after night, and do it.
“It’s all about momentum changes and when you’ve got a team of players and a team of coaches that have been through this before you become a very strong group.
I know the kind of guys I’ve had in that room all year. I know they are a great bunch of individuals and a great bunch of athletes.Paul Thompson, Sheffield Steelers’ head coach.
“And that is exactly what we became – a very strong, determined group. I’m just over the moon with what we’ve achieved.”
The previous weekend at the National Ice Centre, a 4-2 win for the Steelers had ended Nottingham’s own slim hopes of their second league title and Corey Neilson’s team came out at Sheffield Arena on Saturday clearly intent on striking a similar blow against their fiercest rivals.
But Steelers rode the early storm and began to enjoy the better possession and, just when it seemed the sides would go in even at the first break, defenceman Cullen Eddy’s speculative shot from the right flank evaded everybody, including the unsighted Shane Madalora, the puck flying into the net with just 22 seconds remaining to give the hosts the lead.
Steelers lost Zack Fitzgerald for the night – and the trip to Fife – when he was called for a check to the head in the 28th minute. It left his team-mates trying to kill a five-minute penalty, although that became a 4-on-4 when Kevin Quick was sent to the box for the Panthers for illegally passing back his goaltenders stick.
It proved a crucial moment, Levi Nelson tipping in from Rod Sarich in front of the net and although Quick halved the hosts’ lead just over four minutes later when he came back out of the box and the Panthers were back on their original man advantage, the period was to belong to impressive Steelers.
The two-goal cushion was restored soon after Quick’s strike when Jeff Legue broke down the right at speed before feeding Robert Dowd to his left, the 27-year-old British forward firing high past Madalora at 32.46.
It got even better for the Steelers 80 seconds before the second break when Ben O’Connor threw the puck on the net from the left-side, Guillaume Desbiens providing the ideal screen to leave Madalora helpless again.
But nobody said it would be easy and that proved to be the case when Brad Moran fired past Marek Pinc at 44.23, before Geoff Waugh made it a one-goal game at 52.20.
More pressure came from the Panthers who were desperate to spoil their hosts’ title hopes and Pinc made a crucial save with just seconds remaining, sealing a win which allowed his team to then go on and clinch the title by two points 24 hours later.