THERE may still be the smallest sliver of hope for Sheffield Steelers’ Elite League title hopes - but defeat at leaders Nottingham Panthers on Friday night certainly leaves them with a huge mountain to climb.
The 4-2 reverse in the first of three road games in as many nights means Ryan Finnerty’s team head to second-placed Belfast Giants on Saturday night five points behind the Panthers, who also have a game in hand.
Defeat at the Odyssey Arena would certainly all but end any chance of a fourth Elite title for the South Yorkshire club, who would only be left with eight games and the hope of results elsewhere going their way.
Without actually going quite as far as conceding defeat in the title race, Finnerty admitted his team’s defeat at the National Ice Centre meant matters were “completely out of our hands.”
If it wasn’t before the game, the title is now surely Nottingham’s to throw away, although their double-header weekend at Belfast is still likely to ultimately determine the final outcome, allowing Steelers’ fans one last ray of hope.
The visitors had started brightly in front if a sell-out NIC, their workrate suffocating Panthers’ offence to dominate the early exchanges. Steelers’ netminder John DeCaro remained relatively untroubled, while opposite number Craig Kowalski was forced to make a number of smart saves, most notably when sticking out his right pad to deny Simon Ferguson at point-blank range.
The breakthrough the visitors had threatened came just 45 seconds into the second period, albeit from an unlikely source when former Panthers captain Danny Meyers found himself all alone in centre ice before skating clear to slot home a neat shot over Kowalski’s right shoulder and into the roof of the net for what must have been a sweet moment following his surprise release by the East Midlands club last summer.
Soon after, the Steelers landed just over one-and-a-half minutes of a 5-on-3 power play after Stephen Lee and Brandon Benedict took penalties for hooking and roughing respectively. But they failed to find a breakthrough and, sensing a reprieve, further momentum swung the home side’s way after Steven Goertzen thought he had doubled the Steelers’ lead when he was clean through on Kowalski in the 27th minute.
Even though Goertzen was adamant the puck had come back out into play from the back part of the goalframe, no goal was given. The Panthers quickly broke down the other end, where Steelers’ Chris Frank took a cross-checking penalty.
With the home support having been slightly muffled, the Panthers did eventually start to come in the game more, building on the momentum of the power play brought about by Frank’s penalty. They levelled in the 32nd minute after David Ling fed Bruce Graham, who fired past DeCaro from 10 yards out.
The Panthers took advantage of another Frank penalty - called at the end of the second for slashing - to take the lead at 41.34 when Pat Galivan was all alone in front of net to fire high past DeCaro’s left shoulder.
If that goal had finally brought the home crowd to life, the NIC almost exploded when Panthers doubled their tally with two goals in 22 seconds a few minutes later. With Drewn Fata in the box on a high sticking penalty, Jordan Fox showed deft hands to deceive DeCaroto to almost walk the puck into the net at 48.04. Then, before Steelers could recover, Brandon Benedict fired in low past DeCaro’s left-hand side for a fourth.
The Steelers refused to lie down, however, and made it a two-goal game when Goertzen forced the puck home at 50.47 on the power play. But that was as close as they got, leaving them on a low ahead of Saturday night’s trip to Belfast.
“It’s frustrating because I thought we had chances to win that game,” said Finnerty.
“We came out the way we wanted to and played well, special teams weren’t clicking tonight and, had they been, it might have been a different story.
“But the title is completely out of our hands now and the biggest thing we can do is to not pout about it and not use it as an excuse to not show up and play.
“We’ve got to come out and have the best game of our season on Saturday and we’re still fighting here for second place and we’ve got the Challenge Cup and we want to continue our good form.
“I know more than anybody that when you let it dip it’s tough to get it back so we just spent the last 15 minutes talking about the way we need to react from this.
“We’ve got a good group of guys here and our goal is still to get some silverware. We’re playing for one another here and I think we’ll come back stronger in Belfast and get we’ll get back on another streak and see where the cards lay.”