THE maths are quite simple for the Sheffield Steelers - win their remaining six games and the Elite League championship will be theirs for a second season running.
Thursday night’s 4-3 defeat in overtime against Braehead Clan merely clarified Steelers’ position in terms of what they needed to do to stop Belfast Giants taking their regular season title, with player-coach Ryan Finnerty admitting his side had “nowhere left to run.”
For a while in Sheffield on Saturday night, it looked like the home team were willing to hand the title to the Giants on a plate when, after producing a similarly slow start to the one seen in Scotland, they found themselves 2-1 down to Braehead with less than 25 minutes played.
But after going behind to Jade Galbraith’s strike at 24.04, the Steelers rallied and, with three goals in less than four second period minutes swung momentum their way to an extent that Braehead rarely threatened again allowing the home side to run out comfortable 6-2 winners.
Steelers’ captain Jonathan Phillips, scorer of two goals and an assist, said a similar performance was required against his former club Cardiff Devils at the Motorpoint Arena on Sunday night (5pm), in order to make sure there was still everything to play for in next weekend’s double-header at leaders Belfast, who they trail by seven points with two games in hand.
Once in Belfast, there will be the small matter of securing two regulation wins at the Odyssey Arena in order to take the title race into the final weekend.
“Our task was made a little harder after Thursday, it just means there isn’t room for any more slip-ups,“ said Phillips.
“But if we go into Belfast and outwork them then we’ve got a good chance.
“We’ve got players in the room who know what is required to win titles, so it doesn’t matter to us whether some people have got us down as underdogs or not.
“We were a little slow to start off with again against Braehead, but once we realised where we were getting success and getting the puck in deep we managed to maintain that throughout the game.
“It always helps when you can get two goals together quickly and as soon as we did that, we picked up some more momentum and it was kind of like game over from there and we just got stronger and stronger.”
The industrious Lee Mitchell was first to find the net for the Clan, benefiting from some good work by Mike Wirll to put the visitors 1-0 ahead at 4.53, although that was quickly cancelled out by a Tom Squires strike 10 seconds later.
Galbraith’s strike silenced the home crowd who perhaps feared their team‘s title chances were going to disappear two weeks before the season had ended.
But that apprehension only lasted for a short while, with Jeff Legue on hand to finish off a patient powerplay build-up to level matters again at 28.38.
With more of a spring in their step, the Steelers snuffled out another Clan attack, which saw them counter-attack down the right before the advancing captain Jonathan Phillips was picked out to fire past Clan back-up netminder Michael Will to give the Steelers a 33rd-minute lead. The home side doubled their advantage 51 seconds later through Colt King.
Four minutes later, it was the British combination of Jason Hewitt and Phillips which had the Motorpoint Arena crowd on their feet when, with Lee Esders in the penalty box, the former broke down the right to set up his Great Britain team-mate who could not miss from in front with a shorthanded strike to make it 5-2.
The third period had a feel of ‘game over’ about it, with Braehead - who visit South Yorkshire again on the last day of the season - rarely threatening and it was left to Luke Fulghum to fire home from the point through a crowd of players on the power play at 56.24 to cap a comfortable night for the home side.
HULL Stingrays slipped to a 4-1 defeat at home to Nottingham Panthers, a result which only served to add doubt over their play-off hopes.
Matt Myers put the visitors ahead on the powerplay in the 16th minute as they dominated the first period, out-shooting their hosts 18 to 3.
But Sylvain Cloutier’s team bounced back in the second period, producing more efforts on goal and, after going 2-0 down following Matt Francis’s 35th-minute strike, hit back quickly when Jason Silverthorn halved the deficit at 36.23 with his 26th goal of the season.
David Beauregard restored Panthers’ two-goal cushion with 61 seconds of the second period left and Rhett Gordon added a fourth at 43.16 to make the points safe.
Dundee Stars won 2-0 at bottom club Fife Flyers, to move level on points with Edinburgh Capitals, who lost 6-3 at home to Belfast. The Scottish rivals are now both four points behind seventh-placed Hull, with the Capitals having three games in hand on the East Yorkshire club. Dundee have one game in hand on the Stingrays, who travel to Fife on Tuesday night.
SHEFFIELD Steeldogs’ hopes of taking the runners-up spot in the English Premier League suffered a blow when they went down 5-1 at Swindon Wildcats.
RESULTS, Elite League: Cardiff Devils 3 Coventry Blaze 2 (OT), Edinburgh Capitals 3 Belfast Giants 6, Fife Flyers 0 Dundee Stars 2, Hull Stingrays 1 Nottingham Panthers 4, Sheffield Steelers 6 Braehead Clan 2.
English Premier League: Slough Jets 5 Guildford Flames 2, Manchester Phoenix 4 Telford Tigers 2, Milton Keynes Lighning Lightning 6 Bracknell Bees 4, Swindon Wildcats 5 Sheffield Steeldogs 1.