IT was never meant to be easy but, if Sheffield Steelers do seal a fifth Elite League title in Scotland on Sunday night, they will have certainly done it the hard way.
The South Yorkshire club only went top of the regular season standings two weeks ago, having chased and kept in touch with their rivals through sheer doggedness and a refusal to cave in.
On Saturday night in Sheffield - in front of a 9,200-plus crowd, they came up against the one team guaranteed to be more desperate to stop them winning the title than any other.
But, despite, some late, nervy moments, the Steelers held off Nottingham Panthers to win 4-3 and leave them requiring a point at Fife Flyers to cap what will have been the most gruelling of seasons with the most prized piece of silverware.
Of course, if the Steelers do slip up against Todd Dutaiume’s dangerous Flyers, Cardiff Devils are lying in wait, their 5-2 win at Manchester Storm ensuring this season’s title race - like last year - will indeed go down to the wire.
A 4-2 win for the Steelers had ended Nottingham’s own, admittedly outside hopes of a second league title at the National ice Centre last Saturday and Corey Neilson’s team came out clearly intent on striking a similar blow against their fiercest rivals.
But Steelers rode the early storm and began to enjoy the better possession and, just when it seemed the sides would go in even when, with just 22 seconds remaining, defenceman Cullen Eddy’s speculative shot from the right flank evaded everybody, including the unsighted Shane Madalora, the puck flying into the net to give the hosts the lead at 19.38.
Steelers lost Zack Fitzgerald for the night and the trip to Fife in the 28th minute when he was called for a check to the head to leave his side to kill a five-minute penalty, although it became 4-on-4 when Quick was sent to the box for illegal equipment.
It proved crucial when the lead was doubled with Levi Nelson tipping in from Rod Sarich in front of net and although Quick halved the hosts lead when they were back on the original man advantage just over four minutes later, the period was to belong to an impressive Steelers.
The two-goal cushion was restored soon after the Panthers’ opener, Jeff Legue breaking down the right before feeding Robert Dowd who fired high past Madalora into the top right-hand corner at 32.46.
It got even better for the Steelers 80 seconds before the second interval when Ben O’Connor threw the puck on net from the left-side boards, Guillaume Desbiens proving the ideal screen to leave the helpless Madalora flummoxed again.
But nobody expected it to be easy and that proved to be the case when, first Brad Moran fired past Marek Pinc in the Steelers goal at 44.23.
Chances came and went at both ends, the Steelers best chance of restoring their three-goal lead coming soon after Moran’s goal only to de denied by Madalora’s outstretched left leg.
The Panthers ensured the home support was quietened even further when Geoff Waugh made it a one-goal game at 52.20, slapping home past Pinc following a well-worked move involving Evan Mosey and Franklin MacDonald.
More pressure came from the Panthers, but the Steelers held firm - Pinc producing a timely blocker save in the last few seconds to the delight of the vociferous home support.