Sheffield Steelers maintain hold over Nottingham Panthers to chip away at leaders Cardiff

Robert Dowd fires in a shot on Nottingham netminder  Jindrich Pacl during Sunday night's 6-1 mtriumph. Picture: Dean Woolley.
Robert Dowd fires in a shot on Nottingham netminder Jindrich Pacl during Sunday night's 6-1 mtriumph. Picture: Dean Woolley.
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IT may not have matched the previous tally when Nottingham Panthers visited South Yorkshire, but that did not make Sunday night’s triumph over their arch-rivals any less satisfying for Sheffield Steelers.

A 6-1 scoreline in no way flattered the Steelers and completed a near-perfect weekend for the defending Elite League champions coming as it did on the back of a 5-4 victory at the National Ice Centre the previous evening.

Sheffield Steelers' players celebrate Mike Ratchuk's first goal of the night. Picture: Dean Woolley.

Sheffield Steelers' players celebrate Mike Ratchuk's first goal of the night. Picture: Dean Woolley.

And how Paul Thompson’s players must be looking forward to Boxing Day – the next time that Nottingham set foot inside Sheffield Arena.

So far on three visits to South Yorkshire, Corey Neilson’s team have come off second-best each time – conceding an alarming, for them, 21 goals in the process.

Looking at the bigger picture, however, last night’s victory more importantly saw the Steelers chip away oh-so slightly at the sizeable lead enjoyed by top-of-the-table Cardiff Devils, who wake up this morning still 11 points clear of their nearest rivals.

There are two more meetings to take place between the top pair ahead of the Christmas period – both in South Wales – the first of which comes next Sunday.

Anders Franzon gets to grips with Nottingham's Jeff Brown. Picture: Dean Woolley.

Anders Franzon gets to grips with Nottingham's Jeff Brown. Picture: Dean Woolley.

It also remains to be seen how much advantage the Steelers make of the five games they have in hand over the Devils, who they have pipped to the title on the final weekend of the season for the last two years.

In the meantime, though, the Steelers can content themselves with a job well done over the weekend.

Understandably buoyed by their road win in Nottingham 24 hours earlier, there was only ever likely to be one winner when the teams reconvened on Sunday.

Less than two minutes had elapsed before Robert Dowd opened the scoring, with Levi Nelson doubling the hosts’ advantage with a powerplay effort at 3.58.

Defenceman Davey Phillips then made it 3-o to a rampant Steelers before the first intermission brought some relief for a shell-shocked Panthers.

But that is where it ended for the visitors, who found themselves four behind just over a minute into the second period following another Nelson powerplay effort

Ratchuk extended the home side’s lead to 5-0 in the 29th minute before Logan MacMillan got Nottingham on the board by finding a way past Ervins Mustukovs less than a minute later.

Understandably, the relentlessness of the Steelers eased in the third, although defenceman Ratchuk was determined to have the final say, adding his second of the night at 54.58 to complete a miserable weekend for the visitors, who are now seven points adrift of second-placed Steelers.

The previous evening was a much more keenly-fought affair, the Steelers holding off a late rally from their hosts.

Already boosted by the return of Swedish forward Yared Hagos after a concussion, the Steelers took the lead in the fourth minute when Mathieu Roy scored on the powerplay.

Nottingham responded six minutes later, however, through Brad Moran’s powerplay strike before, less than two minutes later, the hosts went ahead from a Matt Carter effort.

But it was the Steelers who were the happier of the two sides going into the first break, John Armstrong levelling at 12.11 before Ben O’Connor edged his team ahead on the powerplay.

Early in the second, with Armstrong serving a tripping penalty, Panthers’ Chris Lawrence levelled matters against the club he briefly played for last season only for Robert Dowd to fire home his team’s third powerplay goal of the night to edge the clash Steelers’ way one more time just after the halfway point.

The points looked secure for the defending league champions when Markus Nilsson pounced at 52.25, although it proved to be a tense finish after Carter grabbed his second of the night just over a minute later, the Steelers hanging on for two hard-fought points.