FOUR times Cardiff Devils had come to Sheffield this season. Four times, they went back to South Wales empty-handed.
But on Saturday night, when it mattered most, they broke their duck at the Sheffield Arena for 2015-16, beating Elite League title rivals Sheffield Steelers 4-3 and striking a potentially fatal blow to their hosts’ own championship ambitions.
On Sunday, Sheffield Steelers need to match Cardiff’s achievement in South Yorkshire. Their four previous visits to the Big Blue Tent this season have all ended in defeat.
If they return with nothing for a fifth time, there’s a good chance their title hopes will be extinguished as defeat would leave them six points adrift of the leaders, who would also have a game in hand.
It had all started so well for the Steelers too, taking the lead at 2.51 when Tyler Mosienko deflected Jace Coyle’s shot to leave Devils’ goalie Ben Bowns with no chance.
It was reward for a bright start from the home side, who had forechecked hard and put the Devils under intense pressure early on.
Steelers deserved their first period lead and it got even better for them when Mosienko grabbed his second of the night just over three minutes into the second, Ben O’Connor working well down the boards on the right before turning back to find the 31-year-old centre, who fired high past Bowns’s left glove.
Just after the halfway mark, however, Cardiff capped an improved spell from themselves by halving the deficit through Tomas Kurka, who had time to fire one in off the post past a helpless Marek Pinc.
Just as it looked like the Steelers had killed off a penalty which had seen Cullen Eddy sent to the box for interference, the Devils showed why they have the best powerplay unit in the league when player-coach Andrew Lord fired past Pinc at 35.02.
Steelers thought they were in front again just over a minute later only for Mosienko’s deflected goal to be disallowed when it was judged that the puck had been kicked in.
Three minutes into the third, Cardiff went in front for the first time when Joey Martin fired past Pinc when given too much time to pick his spot. Just over five minutes later, the Devils again showed their clinical side when doubling their lead through Ryan Russell, who quickly pounced on a rebound from Pinc after he had parried Kurka’s initial shot.
That was the signal for some home fans to leave, perhaps sensing the title was slipping from their team’s grasp and while Steelers’ intensity did temporarily dip after going two behind, they soon rallied and created a number of chances.
Conny Stromberg was denied by a combination of Bowns’s left pad and the post, while Levi Nelson will probably still be wondering how he fired over from two yards out after working a clear opening for himself in the 57th minute.
A goal did eventually come for the Steelers but, with just 14 seconds left on the clock, Mosienko’s hat-trick strike was too little, too late.
We’ve just got to make sure that when we go down there we produce our best game of the year and cause an upset like they have here.Jonathan Phillips, Sheffield Steelers’ captain
Afterwards, Sheffield Steelers’ captain Jonathan Phillips refused to throw in the towel over the title race.
“I think it’s still open to be honest and it is still anybody’s title,” said Phillips.
“We’ve just got to make sure that when we go down there we produce our best game of the year and cause an upset like they have here.
“I thought we played well tonight. In that third period we were a little bit sloppy in giving up them two goals but we are playing against a great team and it is going to happen.
“We’ve just got to make sure that we do everything we possibly can to get the points back and not let that gap get too big between us and them.”