SHEFFIELD Steelers’ player-coach Ryan Finnerty led from the front to keep his team’s Elite League title hopes very much alive with a 4-2 victory over bitter rivals Nottingham.
His third-period goal proved to be the game-winner as Sheffield laid to rest a poor run of results against the Panthers, having won just one of the previous six meetings between the two teams this season.
The result leaves Steelers’ in second place, seven points adrift of leaders Belfast Giants with five games in hand, Nottingham are now three points adrift of Steelers having played five games more and Tuesday night’s result at the Motorpoint Arena was another crushing blow to their already-fading title hopes, which had already taken a knock with two defeats to Belfast at the weekend.
Finnerty, whose team travel to Dundee Stars on Thursday night before a return match with the Panthers in Nottingham on Saturday, was understandably buoyed by his side’s latest success, but refused to rule Corey Neilson’s team out of the title race just yet.
“It feels good to beat them,” said Finnerty. “We have been on the wrong end of a few beatings against them this year so we were due one.
“They are a great side, so offensive, so we have to play well to get anything from them and we did that. We had a few lapses but – overall – we played great.
“I think that hurts Panthers’ title hopes but you can never rule them out. Until it’s mathematically impossible for them to win it they will be pushing, so this win was big for us.
“With Belfast taking four points at the weekend we cannot afford to lose any more games but we will keep focussing on what we have to do and pushing and trying to get results like this.”
Steelers were missing Ashley Tait through injury and Nick Duff sat out as the spare import, with in-form Neil Clark – scorer of two goals at the weekend – again preferred.
Home fans must have feared the worst after only 91 seconds when David Clark found himself free in front of goal to pick his spot for the opening strike.
Finnerty’s frustration was obvious as he came to blows with Panthers’ Brock Wilson, earning both five-minute fighting penalties. But Panthers’ lead lasted only 50 seconds before the puck fell to Colt King, who slotted home.
Steelers dominated the chances for the rest of the session, but could not make the pressure pay as Nottingham netminder Craig Kowalski kept them at bay. But they finally made the breakthrough in the 34th minute when Jason Hewitt picked out Steve Birnstill in front of goal to score.
This time it was the turn of Panthers to hit back, Robert Lachowitz tipping a shot from Corey Neilson that looped over Sheffield goalkeeper John Decaro. The Steelers’ players were convinced there was a foul on Decaro and Matt Stephenson was subsequently given a misconduct penalty for arguing too hard.
With the game an even affair, it was coach Finnerty that stepped up in the 47th minute and unleashed a bullet into the back of the net. Captain Jonathan Phillips made sure of the win with a late empty-net goal.