IF a second straight Elite League title proves beyond Sheffield Steelers this season, and if the team to deny them happens to be Cardiff Devils, head coach Paul Thompson feels the defending champions could be left to rue “the one that got away”.
The “one” he is referring to is Cardiff goaltender Ben Bowns.
In the last couple of years, the Rotherham-born goalie has come on leaps and bounds and is likely to start ahead of Belfast Giants’ Stephen Murphy for Great Britain in the forthcoming Olympic qualifiers in Italy.
The 25-year-old has excelled under Devils’ player-coach Andrew Lord since switching from Hull Stingrays in the summer of 2014, back-stopping them to the Challenge Cup at Steelers’ expense in last year’s final.
This season, out of all the league’s regular first-choice goalies, Bowns is No1, both in terms of save percentage (92.1) and goals against average (2.42 per game).
For Thompson, whose team face Belfast at Sheffield Arena on Saturday night, the fact Bowns is not playing for the Steelers is a source of intense frustration, largely because he came through the youth system at neighbouring Sheffield Steeldogs.
Bowns spent three years as first-choice at the Steel City’s English Premier League representatives before being offered a chance to step up to the top-flight by then Hull coach Sylvain Cloutier.
He spent two further years honing his craft in East Yorkshire before Cardiff came calling.
“How Ben Bowns is not at this hockey club is beyond me - it’s criminal,” said Thompson, who has had to contend with several goaltending issues this season, with original first-choice Tyler Plante suffering an injury and being replaced by Marek Pinc, who himself has missed several games with a shoulder problem until his return to action in midweek.
“I just shake my head when I think about it. How can that guy slip through? What were the people who were here previously doing or thinking?
“I tried to sign Ben when I was in Coventry but, to me, it’s just baffling that a guy who was born down the road from here is playing for one of our main rivals for the league title.
Regardless of whether Bowns should have become a Steelers’ player or not in recent years, Thompson believes the club may have potentially unearthed another netminding gem in the shape of current, unflappable back-up, Brad Day.
The 21-year-old Huddersfield-born stopper has delivered every time he has been called upon this year, his experience in marked contrast to his previous two seasons when operating as neighbouring Steeldogs’ back-up in the EPL.
A recent injury to Marek Pinc means Day was called on once again, his approach and attitude to the pressure impressing both Thompson and his team-mates.
“We have discovered that we have a young talent in Brad that is probably at the same stage where Ben Bowns was two or three years ago,” said Thompson.
“He’s not at Ben’s level because Ben has moved on and progressed to being a No 1 starter for Cardiff.
“But Brad certainly has a fabulous temperament. He was a back-up in a semi-professional league so it has been a massive learning curve for him, but he’s very popular with the other guys in the room.
“If he wants it, and he wants to be the hardest-working guy every day and he wants to look after himself and eat well and drink well, he has every chance of going on and having a future in this game - without doubt.”
Tuesday night’s 2-1 win in overtime in Belfast has kept Steelers in the hunt to retain the regular season championship they won under Gerad Adams last year.
But Belfast will understandably want to exact swift revenge after Jonathan Phillips’s overtime winner ensured the Steelers earned six points out of a possible eight at the SSE Arena this season.
It gets no easier on Sunday when the Steelers travel to Coventry Blaze, whose only spark of consistency in a hit-and-miss season seems to be their performances against their former coach Thompson’s current charges, winning four of the five encounters between the two sides this season. Coventry travel to Cardiff tonight.