FINALLY. Sheffield Steelers got the better of their 2015-16 nemesis Coventry Blaze on Sunday night as they kept the defence of their Elite League title on track with a maximum return from the penultimate weekend of the regular season.
The Steelers had enjoyed early-season success against Chuck Weber’s team, although two of their three wins over the Blaze had come in the Challenge Cup group phase.
Ever since then, however, Coventry - while thrashing around in the lower reaches of the league standings - have had Steelers’ number, winning all six subsequent league meetings.
It has been a lopsided series which has - and still could - threaten Steelers’ hopes of the league championship.
And while there may have been the proverbial ‘squeaky bum time’ for a few minutes at Sheffield Arena when Coventry pulled to within one goal early in the third, Steelers responded when it mattered, running out comfortable 6-3 winners.
All that remains between the Steelers and a fifth regular season crown are a home game against Nottingham Panthers - who they defeated at the National Ice Centre 4-2 on Saturday - before a final-day trip to Fife Flyers.
Oh, and then there’s the small matter of the Cardiff Devils - the one team who can still stop the Steelers, the South Wales club helped by their ability to overcome Belfast Giants 4-3 in overtime.
That made it two wins in as many nights against the same opponents for the Devils, the first triumph on Saturday sealing the Erhardt Conference title for Andrew Lord’s team, while the second mathematically ended the title hopes of Derrick Walser’s team.
It was the perfect way for Cardiff to mark the opening of their new rink.
As it stands, Steelers are two points clear of Cardiff, who have a game in hand.
That game takes place on Wednesday when they travel to Northern Ireland to face Belfast once again where a win for the hosts would - not surprisingly - be the preferred outcome for the Steelers.
Even then, the defending champions would still probably require another maximum return on the final weekend to clinch the deal – not a simple task given the strength of opposition on either night.
Mathieu Roy opened the Steelers’ account in front of a boisterous 6,300 crowd, poking home the rebound on the powerplay from a Jace Coyle shot at 6.08.
It got even better for the hosts two minutes later when the first of two piledrivers from defenceman Ben O’Connor sailed past a helpless Brian Stewart in the Blaze goal.
O’Connor duly repeated his effort - from virtually the same position - this time on the powerplay at 11.35.
But, as has often been the case against Coventry this season, it wasn’t all plain sailing for Paul Thompson’s team, with former Steelers’ favourite Ashley Tait poking home a rebound shortly before the end of the first.
Just over six minutes into the second period, good work by Freddie Vestberg around the back of the Blaze net set up the next goal, his shot cannoning off Stewart to where a grateful Luke Ferrara was waiting to tap the puck home.
But, like the proverbial bad penny, Blaze came back again, making it 4-2 through Jordan Pietrus on the powerplay at 30.47.
The goal which silenced the home crowd came early in the third and, for a while, Blaze piled further pressure on Marek Pinc’s net.
But, crucially, the Steelers’ held out and any doubts over the outcome were dispelled in the 52nd minute when a bullet from Robert Dowd was tipped in by Jace Coyle, with Tyler Mosienko further settling the home crowd’s nerves when he poked home a rebound from a Roy shot at 56.29.
There was still time for Blaze’s Boris Valabik to play out the lead villain role, losing his cool to be handed a misconduct penalty with less than two minutes remaining and requiring to be escorted from the ice by the officials, but only after offering to take on the majority of the Steelers’ bench.
But the pain of defeat in South Yorkshire for Coventry was soothed when news filtered though of a 6-3 loss for Manchester Storm at the hands of Braehead Clan, a result which guaranteed the West Midlands club the eighth and final play-off spot and a chance to defend the post-season crown they denied the Steelers in last year’s final.