BACK in September, a buoyant Sheffield Steelers travelled to Coventry Blaze’s Skydome Arena and enjoyed an emphatic 4-0 victory in the Challenge Cup.
In their four Elite League visits since then, they have lost every time.
On Saturday night, Coventry – embroiled in a two-way fight with a resurgent Manchester Storm for the eighth and final play-off spot – did their former coach Paul Thompson and his current Steelers team a huge favour when winning 2-1 on the road at leaders Cardiff Devils.
Combined with a rousing 7-0 victory for the Steelers at home to Dundee Stars, it saw the South Yorkshire club pull level with the Devils on points.
But, 24 hours later, it became clear why Cardiff came unstuck when the Blaze made it six league wins out of seven over the Steelers with a 4-2 victory, handing a slender advantage in the title race back to the Devils, who were without a game and watching with fascination down in South Wales.
Steelers have five games remaining in which to retain their regular season title.
And while Cardiff may once again be slight favourites for the trophy as a result of the weekend’s encounters, their run-in is a daunting one, with three games against an in-form Belfast Giants still to come, as well as two clashes with Nottingham and a trip to a Manchester side desperate to qualify for the post-season.
On paper, the Steelers’ run-in appears slightly less troublesome although, like Cardiff, they must face arch-rivals the Panthers twice more. They also have to face-off home and away against Fife Flyers as well as negotiate yet another encounter against bogey side Coventry, this time at Sheffield Arena.
After seeing his side once against come off second-best against his former club on Sunday night – despite out-shooting their hosts 48-22 – Thompson said there was little point in dwelling on the setback.
“Offensively we created some great opportunities, but – once again – we’re just a little bit handcuffed against this team when around the net,” said Thompson.
“We’ve got nobody to blame but ourselves. We’ve got to be more ruthless in those areas.
“Then, at the other end, we make a couple of mistakes and they capitalise on them and hurt us twice with their third and fourth goals.
“The difference is we don’t capitalise on their mistakes and that is what it has been like against them all year.
“It is very frustrating when you put in around 50 shots on them and one man – their goalie (Brian) Stewart – has been outstanding against us all year.
“But there is no point in us moping about it, we just have to move on and get on with it.”
It was a familiar story early on in Coventry when the hosts raced into a 2-0 lead after six minutes, Brett Robinson’s opener being added to by Brenden Walker.
The second period belonged to the Steelers, who drew level through a Guillaume Desbiens strike at 20.48 before Jeff Legue scored on the powerplay at 25.30.
But Walker hit his second just before the end of the second period, with Jordan Pietrus’s 46th-minute strike confirming the win for Blaze.
With Fife next up at home on Saturday, Thompson is likely to be without the influential Desbiens, who received a match penalty at the SkyDome after a scuffle broke out in the post-match handshake. The Steelers’ boss said the Steelers would study the match video to see whether there will be any point in trying to appeal the officials’ decision.
By contrast with their latest disappointing trip to Coventry, Saturday night saw the Steelers bounce back from their harrowing Challenge Cup semi-final loss to Nottingham in impressive style against an out-of-sorts Stars.
First-period goals from Levi Nelson, Legue and Jace Coyle put the Steelers on their way to a comfortable win at Ice Sheffield.
The lead was doubled during the middle section through strikes from Mathieu Roy, Desbiens and Tyler Mosienko, with Luke Ferrara completing the scoring in the 59th minute.