SHEFFIELD STEELERS’ hopes of their first Elite League double since 2009 disappeared when the team who had proved such a thorn in their side all season struck them down once again in the play-offs.
A week after lifting the regular season championship for a fifth time in Fife, the Steelers’ 2015-2016 campaign was ended by Coventry Blaze.
Trailing 5-3 from the first leg 24 hours earlier, the second leg in front of a 7,000-plus crowd, ended 3-3 giving Chuck Weber’s team the chance to defend their play-off title in Nottingham next weekend.
WATCH - click on the video above to see our post-match interview with Steelers’ with Jason Hewitt
It was a cruel end to the season for Paul Thompson’s team, and in particular Jason Hewitt and Jeff Legue, who ended their illustrious careers on a losing note after announcing their retirement earlier in the week.
It couldn’t have got off to a worst possible start for the Steelers, the euphoria which had greeted the players on being announced as the Elite League champions being quickly followed by silence when Coventry took the lead just over a minute in.
A break down the right wing from Cale Tanaka saw the puck emerge in front of goal with Marek Pinc stranded to leave Russ Cowley a simple tap in at 1.16.
Understandably, frustration crept in among the Steelers players, with captain Jon Phillips taking a roughing penalty and Mosienko following him into the box soon after for interference on Blaze goalie Brian Stewart.
Coventry then became indisciplined themselves, with Josh Godfrey being followed into the box by former Steelers’ defenceman Jim Jorgensen, leaving the hosts with a 93-second 5-on-3 powerplay.
They made it pay when, less than a minute into their two-man advantage, Freddie Vestberg worked space for a shot which was deflected in by Mathieu Roy to make it 1-1 on the night and return the deficit to just two goals.
Good work between Rod Sarich and Levi Nelson presented the former with a clear sight of goal, although Stewart was able to cover up before Nelson could get to the rebound.
But the second goal the Steelers’ possession deserved came with just under three minutes remaining, Jace Coyle’s speculative shot on goal cannoning in off the right skate of Coventry’s James Isaac under pressure off Tyler Mosienko.
It should have been 3-1 to Steelers at the break when Vestberg had a golden chance two yards out from a gaping, empty net with Stewart exposed, only to somehow fire over.
An even second period saw neither side create that many clear-cut chances and it wasn’t until just after the halfway point that the loudest cheer of the night arrived.
Enjoying another powerplay courtesy of Boris Valabik being in the box, Colton Fretter - who returned the previous night after spending the majority of the season out injured - skilfully worked space for himself on the left before firing past Stewart, who was unsighted thanks to a screen in front from Guillaume Desbiens.
Pinc had to be alert at the other end to save neatly from Josh Godfrey, before pulling off a neat poke check on Cale Tanaka before sticking out a pad to deny Ashley Tait’s snapshot on the turn.
At the other end, Jeff Legue - in his last-ever game at Sheffield Arena - fed Sarich who forced a sharp reflex save from Stewart.
The third period was a stop-start affair, Coventry going closest to scoring through the impressive Carl Lauzon.
And it was after the Blaze had enjoyed a spell of pressure that they made their possession pay when, at 48.56, Drew Fisher back-handed past Pinc to once again silence the home crowd with the visitors going ahead on aggregate.
If Steelers had been playing desperate hockey at the start of the second leg, they cranked it up another few notches now.
Nelson was denied point blank by Stewart, while Conny Stromberg hit the post.
It was as close as they got. And, with Pinc understandably pulled, their season was officially ended when Cowley struck with an empty net strike 12 seconds from time, levelling matters on the night and giving his team an 8-6 aggregate victory.