Still all to play for, insists Steelers’ Finnerty

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SHEFFIELD Steelers’ player-coach Ryan Finnerty insisted his team are no worse off in the Elite League title race despite Friday night’s 3-2 defeat after a shoot-out to leaders rivals Belfast Giants, writes Phil Harrison.

It was Craig Peacock’s successful penalty and Steve Birnstill’s subsequent miss which secured the extra point for Doug Christiansen’s team, stretching their lead at the top to eight points.

But with Steelers still having three games in hand over the Giants and a double-header weekend to come at the Odyssey Arena in a fortnight, the scenario remains more or less the same as it did before the latest face-off between the top two at the Motorpoint Arena.

While the long-awaited return to the ice of defenceman Rod Sarich will be a source of relief for the Steelers, the continued absence of British forward and assistant coach Ashley Tait is a growing cause for concern.

An announcement is expected to be made in the coming days on whether the 36-year-old will play any further part this season as he battles to recover from an ankle injury. And it was the absence of Tait that Finnerty regarded as the main difference between the two sides in a tight game.

“Once we went into overtime it doesn’t change anything really in terms of what we have to do,” said Finnerty. “So we’ve still got to make sure we win the games in hand and those games in Belfast because we’re not expecting them to drop many points elsewhere.

“But I tell you the difference (between the two teams) was the fact that Ashley Tait was sitting in the stands.

“Losing Ash - that’s a big difference right there - and you notice it when you can’t replace your top-end British-born players.

“But we worked hard and I felt both teams played well - it was a good game. Having Rod (Sarich) back definitely helped us. He’s only going to get better and better as we go on. It’s still within our grasp.”

The Steelers had gone into the game as slight underdogs -de spite enjoying home advantage - with many people expecting a repeat of Belfast’s 4-2 triumph at the same venue last month.

The Giants came into the back of a 10-game winning streak, but it was the home side who made all the running, particularly in the first period, creating numerous chances in and around the net.

The best chance came to the stick of Tom Squires in the 12th minute when, not long after he had grazed the side of the post, the puck found him all alone in front of the net, but he could only fire it over.

Former Steelers’ favourite Robert Dowd and his team-mates looked threatening whenever breaking forward, but they were largely kept to the outside until the 19th minute when they took the lead on the power play while Finnerty was in the box on a tripping penalty.

From behind the net, Dowd fired the puck in front where it cannoned off the unfortunate Colt Ling and past John DeCaro.

It was a little rough on the home side, but they had to wait until after the break to get their just rewards when they took advantage of a 10-second power play window to level. King worked well on the boards to find Jason Hewitt in front to fire past Stephen Murphy at 26.28.

Their joy was short-lived, however, when - with Finnerty in the box again - Belfast restored their one-goal lead 50 seconds later, John Pelle weaving his way through unchecked to fire past DeCaro.

Chances seemed to be at a premium during the third as Belfast sat back more but Steelers’ persistence paid off when the industrious Lee Esders capitalised on some good work by King to level matters at 55.36.

No goals came in overtime and it was left to Peacock to make himself the hero for the visitors in the fourth round of penalty shots.