AS COMEBACKS go, you have to say it was pretty impressive.
Around 20 hours earlier just under 45 miles south down the M1, Chris Lawrence had pounced with 10 seconds remaining on the clock to give Nottingham Panthers a 5-2 victory over their fiercest rivals Sheffield Steelers.
For many in the building and thousands more following the first leg of the Elite League play-off quarter-final through various social media platforms, it seemed to signal the end of the Steelers’ 2016-17 season. Surely there was to be no way back.
They were wrong.
The Steelers first overturned the three-goal deficit back on home ice on Sunday night at Sheffield Arena, then got themselves in front before being hit by another sucker-punch – again from their former forward Lawrence – which forced the game into 10 minutes of 4-on-4 overtime.
The hero on this occasion – and perhaps deservedly over the two legs – was to come from the home team, Guillaume Desbiens powering down the ice and driving to the net where he forced the puck past back-up netminder Dan Green just 99 seconds in to cause the vast majority of the 6,000-plus crowd to erupt in sheer joy.
It means the Steelers wake up this morning still in contention for the final piece of silverware on offer at next weekend’s Final Four Weekend at Nottingham’s National Ice Centre.
Standing in their way in the semi-final will be Belfast Giants and then, if they are able to see off the regular season runners-up, a showdown in Sunday’s final against either Dundee Stars or Cardiff Devils, with the South Wales club desperate to clinch a grand slam having already won the league championship, Challenge Cup and Erhardt Conference title.
Afterwards, Steelers’ head coach Paul Thompson was understandably delighted, his players having carried out the gameplan almost to the letter – something they had failed to do the previous evening when they went 4-0 inside the first 12 minutes.
But just under 24 hours later, they had clearly redeemed themselves in the eyes of their head coach, who was clearly pleased to prove a few of the doubters wrong.
“We had a plan today and we put it up on the ball and talked about taking small segments at a time and what we were looking to achieve each time,” said Thompson.
“We had to play the perfect game today and we had to be tough on our guys and we had to say things to them that normal people in normal jobs probably wouldn’t put up with, or wouldn’t accept.
“But you get tough in sport because there is always a lot of people who think they know a lot more than you do and are all too ready to jump on your back when you do or don’t achieve what you’ve set out to achieve.
We had to be tough on our guys and we had to say things to them that normal people in normal jobs probably wouldn’t put up with, or wouldn’t accept.Sheffield Steelers’ head coach, Paul Thompson.
“But we’ve showed the good, quality fans that we’ve got tonight – the ones that get behind us – what we’re all about.”
From the first puck drop on Sunday, the Steelers were relentless – certainly for most of the first two periods after which they found themselves 2-0 up.
The first of those goals was down to the sheer doggedness of forward Levi Nelson, whose persistence in front of net saw him force the puck past Panthers’ goalie Miika Wiikman at 18.33.
The control and possession continued in the next section, at least until the 33rd minute when Wiikman had to be stretchered off the ice following a sickening collision involving several players right in front of his net.
Play was halted for around 15 minutes while medical personnel tended to the stricken goaltender before he was carried off the ice and into a waiting ambulance.
The Panthers later tweeted that precautionary checks at the hospital were positive.
While the thoughts of everyone in the building were with Wiikman, what followed only seemed to galvanise the home side further.
John Armstrong was slapped with a five-minute major for goalie interference and saw his night end early when he was also handed a game misconduct.
But despite having a man advantage for five minutes, Steelers’ own netminder Ervins Mustukovs remained relatively untroubled. It got even better for the hosts when, with just a few seconds remaining on their penalty kill, they gained further reward for their efforts.
Good work on the left-hand boards from captain Jon Phillips and Mathieu Roy forced the Panthers into giving up possession close to the Steelers’ blue line.
As the puck broke free, so did an alert Phillips, who raced down the ice before rounding Green with ease to make it 2-0 at 37.30.
The third period produced a response of sorts from the Panthers with Mustukovs called into action a couple of times, but it was a face-off in the Panthers’ zone in the 48th minute that produced the next goal.
Markus Nilsson won the drop and was also quickest to react by following up to slide the puck through Green’s legs to level the scores overall.
Again, Nottingham gained more possession than they had managed in most of the first 40 minutes, but a Steelers powerplay brought about by a tripping call on Panthers’ defenceman Steven Lee was eventually to bring the biggest cheer of the night.
Robert Dowd had seen a couple of efforts blocked on the man advantage before he received the puck from Nilsson on the left hash marks from where he unleashed an unstoppable slapshot past the helpless Green at 55.23.
The Steelers suddenly found themselves in front and on their way to the semi-finals until – with just eight seconds on the clock and Green long pulled – Panthers’ extra skater paid dividends when Lawrence tipped in a Stephen Schultz piledriver.
The fear was that momentum had suddenly swing back with the Panthers, but just 99 seconds into the extra period, Desbiens produced his moment of magic to earn himself a place in Steelers’ folklore.