SHEFFIELD Steelers’ fans are assured of another nervous night of play-off hockey at Ice Sheffield after taking a slender lead into the second leg of their quarter-final against Coventry Blaze.
On a night packed with drama in all four of the post-season first-round matches, the Steelers had a number of chances to improve their first leg lead before settling for a 3-2 win at the Skydome Arena.
Last year saw the Steelers return home from the first leg of their quarter-final with Hull Stingrays all-square at 2-2.
The second leg was one Steelers would like to forget after being on the receiving end of an inspired display from Hull, who ran out comfortable 5-2 winners to seal a 7-4 aggregate victory.
The potential is there for a similar outcome, but the Steelers were good value for their win and, but for the post and a number of fine stops by Blaze netminder Peter Hirsch, would have been further ahead at the halfway stage of this two-legeged tie. Produce the same kind of display again, and they should find themselves in Nottingham next week for the final four weekend.
Afterwards, Steelers’ head coach Ryan Finnerty was happy with his team’s performance and remained confident ahead of Sunday night’s return leg.
“We played a very good first period and third, the second period was riddled with penalties and we didn’t really get much going offensively,” said Finnerty.
“But I thought we had chances to increase the lead - Hirschy had a great game and with a little bit of luck we might have had a couple more goals.
“We’re taking the approach that its 0-0 heading back to Ice Sheffield and we’ve got to play with the same kind of confidence and jump that we showed tonight.
“I thought there were two good teams out there and I thought it was a pretty entertaining game.
“Coventry came at us towards the end, they didn’t quit and they played well, but I thought we absorbed the pressure pretty well.
“Our ‘D’ did a good job and Johnny (DeCaro) was there when we needed him, but Hirschy was the same for them.
“I think we would have been more comfortable with a couple-goal lead, but we’ll take the one-goal advantage heading into Sunday.”
Drew Fata’s eighth-minute 5-on-3 powerplay strike was all that separated the two teams at the end of the first period, with Steelers enjoying the greater possession without being able to extend their lead.
As you’d expect in such an important game, it was chippy and niggly throughout but the Steelers further silenced the home crowd when they doubled their lead at 24.36, Jason Hewitt finishing off a well-worked move by firing past Hirsch high into the roof of the net.
But it was soon a one-goal game again when Adam Henrich replied 59 seconds later, pouncing on a rebound after an initial good save by Steelers’ John DeCaro. In what was a stop-start second period, it was the Steelers who came the closest to scoring again, only for Simon Ferguson’s close-range effort to trickle across the goalline after hitting the post.
The Steelers were again denied a third by the pipes early in the third period when a Fata pass put Ashley Tait on a breakaway only for his fierce shot to cannon back off the post.
Steelers eventually did get their two-goal lead back at 45.28, Tylor Michel finding himself all alone in front of an empty net after Hirsch had done well to parry Steven Goertzen’s initial effort.
Hirsch denied Danny Meyers on a breakaway and foiled Goertzen’s close-range effort, before Coventry began to exert some pressure on the visitors during the closing stages.
For the most part the Steelers looked comfortable in dealing with that pressure, although Shea Guthrie’s deflected effort squirmed through DeCaro’s legs at 53.48 to set up what should be a thrilling second leg in South Yorkshire on Sunday night.