AS they say in these two-legged affairs, it is only half-time. But what a first half it was as Hull Stingrays and Sheffield Steelers traded blows in the first leg of their Elite League play-off quarter-final.
Fittingly, it finished all-square at 2-2 setting up Sunday night’s sell-out second leg at Ice Sheffield (6pm) perfectly as the Yorkshire rivals battle to secure a place at the finals weekend at Nottingham’s National Ice Centre next weekend.
Twice the Steelers went ahead at Hull Arena, and twice the home side came back to level matters proving their 4-3 regular season win over the league runners-up two weeks ago was no fluke.
Played out in front of another 1,000-plus crowd who created a crackling atmosphere, it was refreshing to see a game dripping with passion and incident, thanks in large part to Hull’s determination to prove they could mix it when it mattered with the so-called ‘big boys’.
Hull coach Sylvain Cloutier insisted all the pressure was on the Steelers ahead of the second leg.
“They are expected to reach the final four, but if we go there and play there like we did in the first leg we’ll give ourselves a good chance,” said Cloutier. “All the pressure is on Sheffield. They are the big team and it’s all on them.
“It was a really close game. I felt both teams were strong defensively, both teams killed the penalties very well tonight.
“There’s everything to play for in Sheffield - it will just be down to whoever wants it more on the night.”
Opposite number Ryan Finnerty was pleased with the response from his players after the shock sacking of forward Colt King earlier in the week overshadowed their preparations.
“I think we saw Hull’s best game there and we had to match them,” said Finnerty.
“They play us hard every game, they always have done. There’s no reason that team should have finished seventh I can tell you that. But I think we played well and, in the end, it could have gone either way.
“But we’re a confident team and we were helped by Johnny (netminder DeCaro) who I felt was our best player and he’s going to have to be again when we go into our barn on Sunday.”
The home side flew out of the blocks and took the game to the Steelers from the off. But they couldn’t find the breakthrough and there was a sense that they would pay for their failure to convert their chances.
So it proved just before the midway point when a poor clearance from behind the net by Stingrays’ captain Kurtis Dulle only found Jeff Legue, whose swift pass to an unmarked Jonathan Phillips allowed the Steelers’ captain to force the puck home past Christian Boucher.
The goal had come against the run of play and temporarily silenced the lively home support. But they were soon in boisterous mood again when Dominic Osman diverted Jereme Tendler’s fierce shot past John DeCaro in the 39th minute.
The game’s first flashpoint had arrived at the start of the second period when Hull’s Derek Campbell was sent to the penalty box for roughing after a tussle with Luke Fulghum left the Steelers’ forward on the floor.
And it was at the end of the second period that the next flashpoint arrived when players from both teams clashed, Jason Hewitt and Andrew Mckinney eventually being the two players penalised.
Hull enjoyed the better chances in the final period, with Osman and Jason Silverthorn both forcing saves from the impressive DeCaro, although it was Campbell who wasted the clearest opportunity from two yards out in the 49th minute when his effort was comfortably blocked with the goal at his mercy.
Again, the home side were made to pay for not taking their opportunities. A warning came in the 50th minute when Boucher was called upon to deny Jonathan Phillips, who had broken clear after rejoining the play from the penalty box.
With Martin Ondrej in the penalty box on a cross-checking call, another failure to clear their own zone saw Hull fall behind again. The puck fell kindly to the Legue, who was able to find Neil Clark all alone close to the net, from where he was able to squeeze the puck past Boucher.
The home side were level within two minutes, however, when Dmitry’s piledriver from the blue line was tipped in by Campbell past a clearly unsighted DeCaro.
Fulghum forced a decent save from Boucher, but that was as close as either side came to grabbing a game-winning goal, with the third period closing out with another melee near the Steelers’ bench after Osman was left flat out on the ice.
It will be no surprise if similar fayre is served up by both teams in South Yorkshire on Sunday night, with the winner knowing a play-off semi-final with Nottingham Panthers awaits after they turned around a 3-0 deficit from the first leg to edge out the Braehead Clan 5-4 in overtime at the NIC.