Sheffield Steelers v Cardiff Devils: Ben Bowns returns to familiar territory intent on spoiling Steelers’ title hopes

FAMILIAR ICE: Ben Bowns is back in South Yorkshire this weekend intent on harming Sheffield Steelers' Elite League title hopes. Picture: Richard Murray.

FAMILIAR ICE: Ben Bowns is back in South Yorkshire this weekend intent on harming Sheffield Steelers' Elite League title hopes. Picture: Richard Murray.

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IT was around about this time 20 years ago that netminder Ben Bowns first watched a Sheffield Steelers game as a wide-eyed five-year-old.

On that particular night, the Steelers – boasting the likes of Ken Priestlay and Wayne Cowley in their line-up – were up against the Cardiff Devils.

In goal for Cardiff that night was Stevie Lyle, but it will be Rotherham-born Bowns between the pipes for the Devils at Sheffield Arena tonight, as he makes another brief return home to South Yorkshire.

READ MORE - Former Steelers and Devils coach Gerad Adams gives his verdict on the weekend & EIHL title race

Tonight’s encounter is the first in a weekend double-header between the Elite League’s top two with battle reconvening in South Wales tomorrow.

Knowing a win on either night will seriously harm their closest rivals’ bid to retain the regular season crown is something 25-year-old Bowns is well aware of, but it is a scenario that doesn’t faze him, particularly after being part of the Cardiff team denied the title on the final weekend of last season when the Steelers beat them 2-1 in Sheffield to confirm their fourth league honour.

STOPPER: Ben Bowns, in action for Cardiff Devils against Nottingham earlier this season. Picture: Richard Murray.

STOPPER: Ben Bowns, in action for Cardiff Devils against Nottingham earlier this season. Picture: Richard Murray.

For Bowns, the way last season ended for the Devils – despite their Challenge Cup triumph over Sheffield – means there is “unfinished business.”

Cardiff make the trip north in pole position to land their first league championship since 1997. They are two points ahead of second-placed Steelers with a game in hand. It is safe to say the next 48 hours are critical, arguably more so for Paul Thompson’s Steelers. And with Nottingham Panthers and Braehead Clan waiting in the wings for the top two to falter, it all promises another nail-biting end to the season with further twists and turns to come.

“I think what happened last season is a big factor for us,” said Bowns, now in his second season with the Devils. “Inside it is kind of burning away that winning the title is something we could have achieved last time around. To get as close as we did was a big achievement in the sense that it was just supposed to be a building year for the club.

“So to get that close as well as winning the Challenge Cup, but then falling away in the play-offs, means there is a case of unfinished business and we need to make that next step.”

It is a title-defining weekend, yes. We’re two points behind them right now and if we beat them on Saturday then we draw level with them. Psychologically that could be a big thing.

Paul Thompson, Sheffield Steelers’ head coach

For Bowns – who joined Cardiff after spells with Sheffield Steeldogs and then Hull Stingrays – any return to the Arena where he grew up watching his boyhood heroes before his goaltending career began to develop remains a slightly unusual experience.

“I think any hockey fan in Sheffield grows up wanting to play for the Steelers,” added Bowns. “But not everyone gets that chance and it is a bit surreal down the years playing against them because, at one time, you used to sit in those stands and watch the team as a kid.”

This season, the six league meetings between the two have gone the way of the home team, but Bowns believes Cardiff are ready to end that sequence.

“If we stick to our game plan, we can win in Sheffield if we play the way that I know that we can,” said Bowns. “You’re talking about two very good teams and all it could take is for one person to be off it and that can cost you.”

Paul Thompson, confident his Sheffield Steelers' team will still be in contention for the Elite League title after this weekend. Picture: Dean Woolley.

Paul Thompson, confident his Sheffield Steelers' team will still be in contention for the Elite League title after this weekend. Picture: Dean Woolley.

Steelers’ head coach Thompson – still missing key forwards Colton Fretter and Robert Dowd – admits it is a season-defining 48 hours for his team, but believes they will do what is required to keep themselves in contention.

“We’re running out of games so we need to get those points back on them and these are four-point games,” said Thompson.

“It is a title-defining weekend, yes. We’re two points behind them right now and if we beat them on Saturday then we draw level with them. Psychologically that could be a big thing.”

While confident of keeping their unbeaten home record against Cardiff intact, Thompson is hopeful cool heads will prevail in South Wales 24 hours later.

“Our discipline in Cardiff will be vital,” he said. “It’s a place where I feel you never get the rub of the green and I believe the crowd down there intimidate a lot of the referees into making calls, I really do.

“If you look at the statistics, Cardiff generally get a lot more powerplays than any visiting team, so we’ve got to be disciplined and we’ve got to have some strong officiating.”

Sheffield Steelers v Caardiff Devils: The story so far

Challenge Cup (group phase)

Sep 6: Cardiff 5 Steelers 3 (Cup)

Sep 13: Steelers 8 Cardiff 1 (Cup)

Elite League

Oct 11: Cardiff 5 Steelers 1

Nov 1: Steelers 4 Cardiff 3 (OT)

Nov 18: Steelers 2 Cardiff 1

Nov 21: Cardiff 6 Steelers 2

Jan 17: Cardiff 7 Steelers 3

Jan 23: Steelers 3 Cardiff 2

Feb 20: Steelers v Cardiff ?

Feb 21: Cardiff v Steelers ?

The EIHL title race

Cardiff Devils (1st; 60pts - 10 games remaining)

Sat Feb 20: Sheffield - A

Sun Feb 21: Sheffield - H

Tue Feb 23: Belfast - A (Challenge Cup, 2nd leg - Cardiff 5-3 ahead)

Thu Feb 25: Fife - A

Sat Feb 27: Coventry - H

Fri Mar 4: Nottingham - A

Sun Mar 6: Challenge Cup Final ?

Sat Mar 12: Belfast - H

Sun Mar 13: Belfast - H

Weds Mar 16: Belfast - A

Sat Mar 19: Manchester - A

Sun Mar 20: Nottingham - H

Sheffield Steelers (2nd; 58 pts - 9 games remaining)

Sat Feb 20: Cardiff - H

Sun Feb 21: Cardiff - A

Tue Feb 23: Nottingham - H (Challenge Cup semi-final, 1st leg)

Wed Feb 24: Nottingham - A (Challenge Cup semi-final, 2njd leg)

Sat Feb 27: Dundee - H (Ice Sheffield)

Sun Feb 28: Coventry - A

Sat Mar 5: Fife - H

Sun Mar 6: Challenge Cup Final ?

Sat Mar 12: Nottingham - A

Sun Mar 13: Coventry - H

Sat Mar 19: Nottingham - H

Sun Mar 20: Fife - A

Nottingham Panthers (3rd; 54pts - 10 games remaining)

Sun Feb 21: Coventry - H

Tue Feb 23: Sheffield - A (Cup semi-final, 1st leg)

Wed Feb 24: Sheffield - H (Cup semi-final, 2nd leg)

Fri Feb 26: Belfast - H

Sun Feb 28: Braehead - A

Fri Mar 4: Cardiff - H

Sun Mar 6: Challenge Cup Final ?

Weds Mar 9: Coventry - A

Sat Mar 12: Sheffield - H

Sun Mar 13: Fife - A

Wed Mar 16: Coventry - H

Sat Mar 19: Sheffield - A

Sun Mar 20: Cardiff - A

Braehead Clan (4th; 53pts - 10 games remaining)

Sat Feb 20: Fife - H

Sun Feb 21: Dundee - A

Sat Feb 27: Belfast - H

Sun Feb 28: Nottingham - H

Sat Mar 5: Belfast - A

Sun Mar 6: Dundee - A

Sat Mar 12: Manchester - H

Sun Mar 13: Manchester - A

Sat Mar 19: Edinburgh - H

Sun Mar 20: Edinburgh - A

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