THE result may have ultimately mattered little in one respect, but Sheffield Steelers’ 5-2 Champions Hockey League win over Red Bull Salzburg was hugely important for a number of other reasons.
A 2-1 win for the Austrians on Friday at Group P winners HV71 Jonkoping from Sweden meant victory for the Steelers would still be insufficient to make them the first British team to reach the knockout stage of the three-year-old competition.
But – having been hammered 8-1 in Austria last month and having not won a CHL game in seven previous attempts – there was a huge amount of pride at stake at Sheffield Arena last night.
Jesse Schultz, who has had a slow start to his first season in the UK, showed his true colours with a superb hat-trick delivering a deserved victory for the Elite League champions and was vindication for head coach Paul Thompson placing such faith in him.
“The boys were fantastic,” said head coach Thompson. “We deserved this and I’m proud of all of them.
“Jesse has got off to a slower start this season and he’s been fighting it for a while, but that hat-trick will give him so much confidence.
“But he’s been flying in practice lately and we’ve seen this coming from him. He’s a quality player and there were some quality finishes.”
The signs were ominous initially when the visitors took a 1-0 advantage at 6.55 through John Hughes. But the Steelers bounced back at 7.27 when Schultz scored his first goal for the South Yorkshire club.
A minute later, the visitors had restored their lead through Manuel Latusa, but two goals in the last five minutes of the second proved to be the key section of the game.
Schultz – adapting well alongside new line-mates Mathieu Roy and John Armstrong – grabbed his second of the night at 34.50 after a break from the former set him up with a simple back-hander past replacement Luka Gracnar in the Salzburg net.
Then, with just two seconds of the period remaining, Robert Dowd struck what proved to be the game-winning goal, pouncing on his own rebound.
Taking penalties had time and again proved a costly experience for the Steelers against both their group opponents and when captain Jonathan Phillips headed to the box for a slashing call early in the third, Salzburg’s powerplay kicked into life.
But good work by Markus Nilsson created a turnover for the Steelers and a two-on-one breakaway with Luke Ferrara, the subsequent inch-perfect pass from the Swede being fired into the roof of the net by the young British forward for a short-handed strike to make it 4-2 at 44.34.
More was to follow when Schultz created another turnover, finishing off the move himself at 47.36 to seal his hat-trick and a memorable night.