ROBERT DOWD struck the winning goal that took Sheffield Steelers into their first play-off final since 2009 when they edged out Braehead Clan at the National Ice Centre.
The 3-2 victory over former coach Ryan Finnerty’s team means the Steelers will now have the task of trying to deny Belfast Giants a treble in Sunday’s final after they had edged out Fife Flyers 1-0 in the earlier semi-final.
Dowd’s winning goal came about from a neat set-up from Nate Dicasmirro in the 54th minute, finding Dowd in front of the net, with the 25-year-old just able to fire off his shot as he tumbled to the ice under pressure from a Clan defenceman.
There was still plenty of time for Finnerty’s team to pull themselves level but, despite a number of chances, they were unable to find a way past Frank Doyle for a third time, providing Steelers with the opportunity to go for a fourth Elite League play-off trophy.
Afterwards, Steelers’ head coach Gerad Adams praised his players for coming through a tough test against the Clan, and admitted he had sympathy for his opposite number Finnerty, who was his captain when playing under him at Cardiff Devils.
“Both teams could have made a genuine claim for winning that game,” said Adams. “It really could have gone either way. I thought Ryan’s team played incredibly well and made our lives extremely difficult. He has done a fantastic job with that team.
“It was high tempo throughout really, which is kind of what you expect, and they had a lot of powerplay time in the second period which put us on the backfoot.
“There was a huge 5-on-3 and then one of our guys lost his stick so it was effectively a 5-on-2 but we were able to kill that off and that gave us a bit of momentum - to only give up one goal on all that time short-handed was very positive.
“We’re good enough to pick up a trophy and end this season on a high - there’s no reason why not.
“Belfast are an incredible team - they won our league by a landslide so I think it’s going to be an incredibly good hockey game in the final.”
Braehead made it clear they were going to try and take the game to the Steelers, an approach which resulted in Maxime Lacroix having to be helped off the ice following one particularly hefty hit from Chris Frank.
It was Braehead who broke the deadlock just four minutes in, Neil Trimm finding himself all alone in front of goal, where he neatly sidestepped Frank Doyle to tap the puck into an empty net.
Dowd then went inches wide for the Steelers before Kyle Jones made a point-blank save from the Steelers’ forward as he darted in from the right-hand side.
Given the openness of the game, it was no surprise when a second goal came at 9.08, the Steelers levelling through Nate DiCasmirro after he found himself free in front of the Clan goal to leave Jones with no chance.
Stefan Meyer was then somehow denied when in front of the net and Jones stranded while Doyle did well to deny Matt Haywood on a breakaway.
After Ash Goldie’s effort was smothered by Doyle, it got heated behind the Steelers goal which resulted in Tim Spencer being ejected from the game after he clashed with Joel Champagne, a mismatch which resulted in Frank also being ejected for being third man in.
The game eventually settled back down and it was then that Steelers took the lead, a neat move eventually finding its way to Dustin Kohn, who slotted the puck past a stranded Jones who then had to be alert to deny Chris Blight twice with his pads.
The pace didn’t relent at the start of the second with both sides resuming their attacking mentality, Steelers’ Chad Langlais was first to threaten when he weaved his way through the Clan defence only for Jones to poke clear.
Danny Meyers then fired wide after being the beneficiary of good work by captain Steven Goertzen before Champagne was denied by Doyle at the other end, the Steelers goaltender then improving on that stop with a stunning point-blank save from Ed McGrane in the 28th minute.
Steelers began to take some unnecessary penalties but did well when killing off a minute of 5-on-3 penalty. That good work was undone at 37.05, however, when Ash Goldie rifled a bullet into the roof of the net as Gord Baldwin sat in the box after earning himself a second boarding penalty in the space of less than five minutes.
The Steelers were handed a golden opportunity to restore their one-goal lead just before the end of the period after a slip by Kenton Smith let in Meyer, but he could only fire into the side-netting.
A slightly scrappy third period ensued, although both goalies were still kept relatively busy, Jones denying both Dowd and Drew Fata, while Trimm fired high past Doyle, who then had to react sharply to block a 50th-minute Champagne effort with his right shoulder.
Lacroix was only denied by Jones’s outstretched right leg while, at the other end, Tristan Harper went close when cutting in from the right.
It would not have been a surprise if the teams had come back for 10 minutes of overtime, but that was proved unnecessary thanks to Dowd’s 54th-minute winner.