PAUL THOMPSON backed his battered and bruised Sheffield Steelers team to recover from their Challenge Cup Final agony and finish the season on a high.
The Steelers went down 3-2 to Cardiff Devils at Ice Arena Wales, the fourth time they had been edged out by Andrew Lord’s side by the odd goal this season.
Given how results went in the league over the previous two days it is more than likely going to be the first of at least two titles for the Devils, who only need six points to inherit Steelers’ regular season crown.
Quite where the play-off crown will end up is anyone’s guess, but Thompson was last night adamant that his players can recover from a miserable weekend – they also lost 4-1 at home to struggling Coventry Blaze on Saturday – in time to lift the post-season title they last won under Gerad Adams in 2014.
“We’ve kind of all known that the league is Cardiff’s to lose for the last couple of weeks really,” said a disappointed Thompson.
“It is hard to accept being out of the running for the league and to lose in a final is tough for us all to take. But we’ve all got to pick ourselves up and, as coaches, we have to pick the team up because they are very low right now.
“We want to finish strongly because there is another trophy to play for and we feel we are a damned good team.
“We got beaten by a very good team here who deserve to win the league because they have been the most consistent team all season. We fully respect what they have in their room – they are a good hockey club.
“But these boys have got it in them to go and win that play-off trophy, of course they have. We were one of the two best teams in this competition and won the group and deserved to be here in the final, but it just wasn’t to be.”
In front of a packed arena –with equal numbers of fans – the final was expected to be another keenly-fought contest and, at least in the first period, it did not disappoint.
Both Ervins Mustukovs in the Steelers goal and his Rotherham-born counterpart Ben Bowns were both forced into action early on, the former twice having to deflect away with his pads while at the other end Bowns had to be on his toes to deny Levi Nelson following good work by Andreas Valdix and Mike Ratchuk.
But it was the Devils who opened the scoring, the puck breaking to an unmarked Gleason Fournier who fired a rasping shot past the left side of Mustukovs and into the top corner at 3.53.
Steelers rallied quickly and forced Bowns into action through Colton Fretter and Jace Coyle, but the Devils were doing a good job of keeping them to the outside.
A 30-second five-on-three powerplay came and went for the Steelers, as did the subsequent 90 seconds on just the one-man advantage and they should have been level in the 15th minute when captain Jonathan Phillips was denied by a sprawling Bowns.
We want to finish strongly because there is another trophy to play for and we feel we are a damned good team.Sheffield Steelers’ head coach, Paul Thompson
But it wasn’t long before the game was all-square. Good work by Nelson behind the net saw the puck eventually break free to Robert Dowd, who side-stepped one man before firing home low to Bowns’s left at 16.24.
Unlike previously, the Steelers made their next power play count, Mathieu Roy finding room on the right-hand boards to fire through a crowd of players and past a helpless Bowns. Not surprisingly, the Devils came out with some urgency in the second, with Matthew Myers, Andrew Hotham and Chris Jones all forcing Mustukovs into saves.
A cross-checking penalty call on Ratchuk saw further pressure come down on the Steelers net, Mustukovs even taking one shot directly in the mask.
The pressure eventually told when Mark Louis made a nuisance of himself in front of net to deflect Hotham’s shot enough for the puck to squeeze through Mustukovs at 37.40.
If any proof were needed of Devils’ second-period dominance, the shot count of 17-2 in their favour was enough and it was pretty much the same in the third period, the telling blow coming just under four minutes in when Layne Ulmer fired past Mustukovs.
The Steelers tried to rally, but found themselves struggling to create any clear-cut chances, their one golden opportunity to level coming in the 46th minute when, on the penalty kill, Guillaume Desbiens blocked a pass and broke free to bear down on Bowns, who stuck out his left pad to deny the Steelers’ forward.