SHEFFIELD Steelers’ player-coach Ben Simon was quick to pay tribute to his players after they clinched a third Elite League title on a dramatic final weekend of the regular season.
The Steelers beat the Braehead Clan on successive nights to finish level on points with the Cardiff Devils, but lifted the trophy by virtue of having won more games in regulation time.
The success marks a stark turnaround for the South Yorkshire club, who endured a summer of turmoil followed by persistent off-ice rumours about whether they would actually finish the season.
But the 33-year-old American-born former NHL player has been able to transform a group of players who stuttered to a fifth-place finish last season before being ousted from the first round of the play-offs.
Amid scenes of jubilation at Sheffield Arena last night, where the Steelers followed up Saturday night’s 5-1 win in Braehead with a comprehensive 7-2 thumping of the Scottish side, Simon admitted he had to learn on the job quickly after arriving last August.
“It is unbelievable,” said Simon, whose team will take on Dundee Stars tomorrow night at Sheffield Arena in the first leg of their first-round play-off.
“It has been a big year for us. I was thrown into the fire and it was a case of learning as I went along.
“This is an awesome club and we have 18 players who have worked hard and deserve everything.”
Belfast Giants, for so long favourites to take the title, also won their two games over the weekend, but finished a point behind the Steelers and Cardiff.
With all three teams still in the running after success on Saturday, home fans’ nerves were settled early in Sheffield when Rod Sarich opened the scoring with a seventh-minute powerplay strike.
Jeff Legue doubled the advantage seven minutes later before two goals in 40 seconds in the second put the game beyond doubt – Jerramie Domish forcing the puck home from close range on 22.52 before Neil Clark added a fourth.
Three minutes later Sarich grabbed his second of the night before Steve Munn added a sixth goal at 27.48. Braehead replied through Adam Walker and Jordan Krestanovich before Munn made it a rare two-goal game for himself at 56.46.
Jonathan Phillips gave the Steelers a 20th-minute lead at Braehead on Saturday before second-period goals from Legue, Joey Talbot, Clark and Ashely Tait secured two crucial points.
Hull Stingrays – who will now face Cardiff in the first round of the play-offs – finished off their regular season in style with a 6-1 hammering of the Nottingham Panthers. The victory came 24 hours after Sylvain Cloutier’s team had defeated Edinburgh Capitals 8-1.
Jason Silverthron’s hat-trick led the way against Nottingham with other goals coming from Lee Mitchell (2) and Andrew Coburn.
Against Edinburgh, Silverthorn scored two, with Coburn (2), Jereme Tendler (2), Lee Esders and Konstnatin Kalmikov also getting on the scoresheet.