WHEN the end of the current Elite League regular season comes around, the past weekend might just prove to be the biggest in Sheffield Steelers’ campaign.
Twice the defending champions were asked to overcome the league’s form team in the shape of title rivals Belfast Giants; twice they did so.
The first bout between the two on Friday night was that one-sided – at least in the first period – it left the hosts at the SSE Arena shell-shocked, possibly even a little red-faced.
Paul Thompson’s team, who had gone into the weekend third in the standings – one place and one point behind their hosts –came out of the blocks flying.
Before 13 minutes had elapsed, the game was effectively over, Mathieu Roy announcing his return from injury with a typical close-range strike in the fifth minute before further efforts from Tyler Mosienko and Freddie Vestberg.
The eventual 6-2 victory was fully deserved, as was the 3-1 triumph the following night, despite the Steelers being asked more questions from the wounded Giants team, who had gone into the double-header on the back of seven wins in eight matches.
For Thompson, that first period of the first meeting was always going to be crucial and, after a gruelling 48 hours in Northern ireland, he had nothing but admiration for his players.
“We’d been watching a load of video and had worked hard all week to put together a game plan going into that first period,” said Thompson.
“The boys executed it perfectly.
“I think from our goaltender Marek Pinc out, everybody played their part and made a significant contribution.
“When you’ve got your most skilled players throwing themselves in front of pucks, that sort of thing resonates throughout the whole team and sets the tone.
“To give up three goals in two games on the road against a team like Belfast is a great achievement. I couldn’t be happier with how it went, but you have to remember that there is a lot of tough, tough hockey still to come and this is not going to get any easier down the stretch.”
After being humbled on the first night, the Giants not surprisingly came out flying 24 hours later and took an early lead through Brandon Benedict, who scored with just 2.29 on the clock.
Just over three minutes later, however, and an unruffled Steelers had levelled when Jeff Legue forced the puck home from close range.
Ultimately, the game was decided in a single minute’s play of the second period.
On the powerplay, Mosienko fired past Stephen Murphy at 29.17, following good work by Russ Moyer and Jace Coyle. Just 39 seconds later, Conny Stromberg – the Swedish forward who made his Steelers’ debut the previous night – set up Roy on a breakaway, the 29-year-old expertly lifting the puck over the right shoulder of Murphy for his 22nd of the season.
On Friday, Mosienko and Roy combined to score two apiece in what was a near-perfect performance from the visitors.
Roy – returning after missing the previous four games with an upper-body injury – had the Steelers 1-0 ahead at 4.47 thanks to good work from Legue and Coyle.
Then, with Belfast’s Mike Wilson in the box for holding the stick, the Steelers struck on their first powerplay of the night when Mosienko doubled his team’s lead at 10.05.
Just 58 seconds later, Mosienko added his second of the night.
Within two minutes it turned into a nightmare for the Giants as Freddie Vestberg struck his 11th of the season, forcing the hosts to take a 30-second timeout.
That is how it stayed until Roy grabbed his second of the night at 27.02, although Craig Peacock pulled a goal back for the Giants before the middle session had ended.
With just under 10 minutes remaining, Steelers forward Guilliume Desbiens took a two-plus-10 for instigating a fight against Mitch Ganzak, allowing Belfast to salvage further pride when Chris Higgins struck on the resulting powerplay at 52.21.
But that was as good as it got for the hosts, with Ben O’Connor finishing off the scoring for the visitors at 57.19 on the powerplay.