AS timely strikes go, it could hardly have been any better from Sheffield Steelers’ Mathieu Roy at Nottingham’s National Ice Centre.
With exactly 3.8 seconds to go, the Steelers’ go-to forward for most of the season – and a man boasting 44 goals and 99 points in the regular season – was in the right place, at exactly the right time to poke the puck home past Hull goalie David Brown.
A video review followed but, once the goal was confirmed, there was no way back for Omar Pacha’s Stingrays, who were left utterly crushed after producing a stunning performance that deserved better.
It was a cruel way for Hull to end their season, although they were left angered at the holding call on Pacha 30 seconds from the end which set up the powerplay from which Roy scored. They also felt a high sticking call should have been made against the Steelers before the winning goal went in.
Going in as clear underdogs Hull had given as good as they got against Gerad Adams’s league champions and, in the first period, had the favourites rattled on a number of occasions.
With the majority of the crowd behind them, Hull – surprise winners over two legs against Braehead Clan in the previous round – rose to the occasion from the off.
After a goalless first period in which Hull’s Jordan Mayer had the clearest chance to break the deadlock – only to be denied point blank by Josh Unice – even better was to come in the second.
In the 24th minute, the Steelers – who had beaten Hull in all six meetings during the regular season – thought they had taken the lead through a Robert Dowd tip in, only to see it ruled out on video review for high sticks.
After killing almost two minutes of a 5-on-3 powerplay – with Jamie Chilcott in the box for delay of game and Carl Lauzon for hooking – Hull then made their hard work pay off, the majority of the 7,000-plus crowd erupting and sensing a major upset when Eric Galbraith fired his team in front at 31.41.
Steelers were level on the powerplay at 34.51 when Darrell Hay’s shot from the just inside the blue line seemed to be deflected by Brown into his own net.
The defending champions then got their noses in front exactly three minutes later when Colton Fretter finished off good work by Cullen Eddy by firing through Brown’s pads from eight yards out.
In the third, Dustin Kohn and Ben O’Connor both struck the right-hand upright within seconds of each other around the 48th minute mark as Hull rode their luck. A few seconds later, they were level.
Play broke up the other end and, when the puck came to Cory Tanaka on the left-wing, he fired in past Unice and, after another video review, Hull were level, this time the officials deeming the goal to be good.
It probably brought the loudest cheers of the afternoon, suffice to say that the majority of neutrals were behind the underdogs.
Chances continued to come and go at both ends in a flowing, physical and entertaining game but both goaltenders remained solid.
The crucial moment came 30 seconds from the end when Pacha was sent to the box on a holding call in front of the net.
The clock continued to tick down and, with everybody preparing for 10 minutes of overtime, Fretter did well to work the puck back to Roy who, from in front of the net, squeezed it between Brown’s pads and, despite their claims for a high sticks call, Stingrays’ hopes of pulling off a second post-season upset were gone.
A delighted Adams admitted his team found it difficult against less-fancied opponents, but felt they began to exert more control as the game went on.
“We’ve got a big time player in Mathieu Roy who was in the right place at the right time,” said Adams.
“I think in the first period we came out so over-aggressive and over-hyped and they had a good game plan and they countered that and sat back on a few battles and I think they were the better team in the first period.
“But, after that, I felt we played well and, particularly in the third period I felt we were in control - we hit the post a number of times but they were fortunate enough to come down and score that second goal. But we never really panicked.”
A frustrated and disappointed Pacha added: “It is really difficult to take, especially when the game came down to the wire like that.
“The effort and work ethic of the guys was unbelievable. They left it all on the ice, they were blocking shots, which makes what happened at the end even more frustrating.
“They let it go all period and I wish they let that late one go too. They then got a shot off, it hit a high stick and there should have been a whistle but the play continued and they scored.
“I don’t know if we would have won or lost in overtime but we should have at least gone to overtime.”