SHEFFIELD STEELERS expected life to be tougher against Coventry Blaze over the course of their double-header weekend – just maybe not quite as tough as it turned out to be.
Going into the weekend, the Steelers boasted a 5-0 record against a team who, despite recent improvements, were still clinging on to the eighth and final-play-off spot heading into the final three months of the 2016-17 Elite league campaign.
On Saturday night, Paul Thompson’s team left it late – very late – to see off Coventry at Sheffield Arena when a goal from John Armstrong with just 67 seconds remaining sealed a 6-5 victory for the relieved hosts.
On Sunday night in Coventry, the Steelers were pushed even harder by Danny Stewart’s group, but got the vital fourth point on offer over the weekend when Swedish forward Andreas Valdix scored with just 62 seconds remaining in overtime to seal a 4-3 triumph.
It was, perhaps, a cruel blow for Coventry, but the Steelers will care little, now boasting a four-game winning streak and just five points behind leaders Cardiff Devils with a game in hand and three meetings still to come against their biggest title rivals.
“I’ve got huge respect for the Blaze,” said Steelers’ head coach Thompson. “They were three-import D-men down tonight and they battled hard and just wouldn’t go away. They played us harder than any other team has in the last five or six weeks.
“We got a little lucky in overtime today but we’ve come away with a four-points against a good, team who are emerging as a very strong outfit now.”
At the Skydome, Valdix opened the scoring just over 12 minutes in, but Coventry responded quickly through Matt Marquardt and Liam Stewart, who scored within 17 seconds of each other to give the Blaze a slender lead heading in to the first period break.
Sheffield equalised through Christoffer Björklund at 23.50 and that is how it stayed heading into the third.
With just over six minutes on the clock, Marquardt grabbed his second goal of the night on the powerplay – a third for the hosts on the man advantage – but Steelers’ defenceman Ben O’Connor fired home with just under three minutes remaining to take the game into overtime, where Valdix grabbed his second of the night to the dismay of the hosts and their fervent support.
On Saturday, the Steelers entered the third period 3-2 ahead thanks to strikes from Levi Nelson, Jace Coyle and Armstrong, who put his team back in front at 37.27 after Blaze had come back to level through markers from TJ Syner and Barry Almeida.
Blaze were level again through Marquardt’s 43rd-minute powerplay strike and then the game see-sawed with O’Connor making it 4-3 at 47.05, only for Robin Bergman to level just over a minute later.
O’Connor was again on target in the 51st minute but that was cancelled out by Jordan Pietrus 72 seconds later. Thankfully, more so for the frayed nerves of Thompson and his coaching team on the Steelers bench, there was to be no way back for the visitors after Armstrong made it 6-5 just over a minute remaining.
Nottingham Panthers, Steelers’ arch-rivals for the past 25 years, became the first British club to win the IIHF Continental Cup in the competition’s 20-year history after beating Ritten Sport 4-1.
Having already beaten Danish side Odense Bulldogs and Beibarys Atyrau of Kazakhstan on Friday and Saturday respectively, Corey Neilson’s side needed just a point from their final game against the hosts to be crowned champions.
They did more than that, sealing a place in Elite league and European hockey history.