PAUL THOMPSON admitted Sheffield Steelers’ hectic schedule finally caught up with them in Kirkcaldy on Sunday night as they suffered a potentially fatal blow to their Elite League title hopes.
With eight games remaining, a 6-3 defeat at Fife Flyers leaves the Steelers eight points adrift of leaders Cardiff Devils and back down to third after Belfast Giants edged above them into second spot by one point with a 4-3 win at Nottingham Panthers.
Cardiff scraped a 3-2 win in overtime at bottom club Edinburgh Capitals to strengthen their claims for a first regular season championship in the EIHL era.
But there was no blame game to be played on the long trip back home from Scotland, as Thompson immediately turned his attention to next weekend’s games, the second of which pits his team against Cardiff in the Challenge Cup final in South Wales.
“I think it has all caught up with us,” said Thompson. “I think that’s 11 games in 23 days or something like that.
“We weren’t sharp and good, honest professional players made mistakes that they don’t normally make – tired mistakes. Fife deserved their win, they played well, there are no excuses.
We weren’t sharp and good, honest professional players made mistakes that they don’t normally make – tired mistakes. I think it has all caught up with us.Sheffield Steelers’ head coach, Paul Thompson
“We’ve tried to manage the bench and ice time over the last few weeks, but we have a tired group who have given me everything they have. The reality is the tank was empty.”
“We missed (Andreas) Valdix and (Robert) Dowd as well, their energy would have helped. We have a few guys playing that shouldn’t be, but I’m sure that could be said by every team throughout this league.
“We come home now and prepare for Coventry and of course for Cardiff in the final on Sunday. We need to rest up and get some bodies back.”
The Steelers were without Dowd in Fife after he had been forced to leave Saturday’s Sheffield Arena clash against Nottingham early following a check to the head by fellow GB international Steve Lee.
Valdix missed his third game in a row, but it is hoped both will be back in place for the final showdown in South Wales on Sunday afternoon.
The Steelers had got off to a perfect start in Fife when defenceman Zack Fitzgerald fired past Shane Owen at 4.37, although the hosts went into the first period break 2-1 ahead following two goals in as many minutes from Mathew Sisca and Brendan Brooks.
A power play strike from Mathieu Roy at 27.37 drew the defending champions level, only for the home side to gain the advantage again when Sisca found a way past Ervins Mustukovs for his second of the night at 31.27.
The Steelers pulled themselves level once again thanks to John Armstrong’s marker early in the third period, but the crucial blow came just over five minutes later when Chase Schaber struck on the power play.
There was to prove no way back for the Steelers this time, however, as they were felled by further strikes from Justin Fox and Carlo Finucci.
Saturday’s clash with Nottingham exploded into life when Steelers’ Geoff Walker and Panthers’ Jeff Brown were handed five-minute majors for fighting before the two-minute mark.
While they sat in the box, the Panthers were hit further when Alex Nikiforuk was handed a game misconduct for boarding.
Roy went closest for the Steelers in a first period that, after the early excitement, became somewhat subdued.
But that all changed within five minutes of the restart when Roy ripped one past Miika Wiikman from the left side at 20.31.
Just over three minutes later, an effort from John Armstrong deflected in off captain Jonathan Phillips and, with the Panthers still reeling, Walker was quickest to react to a loose puck in front of Wiikman’s goal to fire home on the power play for 3-0 at 29.24.
But two quickfire goals from the Panthers early in the third had the Steelers teetering.
Robert Lachowicz’s strike at 42.39 was quickly followed by a David Clarke effort 47 seconds later.
A stout defensive rearguard prevented Mustukovs being beaten again, Phillips settling the nerves with just 21 seconds remaining when he grabbed his second of the night with a long-range empty-net strike for a 4-2 win.