SHEFFIELD STEELERS' Elite League title hopes were dealt a significant blow when they were hammered 7-1 in front of their own fans by the Cardiff Devils.
The result leaves leaders Cardiff six points clear of the Steelers, although player-coach Ben Simon's team still have a game in hand and there are still more than 20 games left in the regular season, two of which will see Sheffield and Cardiff enjoy a double header on the weekend of February 19-20.
On the night, Steelers simply failed to turn up, a fact which will probably have Simon scratching his head for the next couple of days before his team return to the Motorpoint Arena ice against Edinburgh Capitals on Saturday night.
The damage was effectively done within the first 12 minutes of the opening period when Cardiff stunned the home crowd with goals from former NHL defenceman Craig Weller and former Steelers favourites Ryan Finnerty and Gerad Adams, the Devils' player-coach.
Simon called a timeout after his counterpart's goal had found a way through the legs of netminder Ervins Mustukovs and Steelers were back in the game within three minutes when Joey Talbot pulled one back with one second remaining of a 5-on-3 powerplay at 14.36.
But the Devils soon restored their three-goal lead with a powerplay strike of their own from league top scorer Jon Pelle at 18.09.
It got worse in a second period which saw the home side run into increasing penalty trouble, going four goals down at 24.56 when Sam Smith netted after good work by Stuart Macrae and Tyler Michel.
Steelers had not long killed over a minute of 5-on-3 with Simon and Jeff Legue both in the box but, within a few minutes they handed Cardiff another two-man advantage when the out-of-sorts Rob Globke followed Kevin Bolibruck (tripping) into the box for charging, a situation he made worse when he picked up an additional 10-minute misconduct call for abuse of an official.
The pressure on the Steelers' penalty kill units eventually told when the Devils made it 6-1 through Kenton Smith with only nine seconds of the two-man advantage left.
Steelers enjoyed decent possession in the early part of the third, without achieving much penetration and the the humiliation was increased further when Brad Voth made it 7-1 at 51.38, triggering some disillusioned home fans to head for home.
Steelers' frustrations boiled over the longer the game went on, culminating in Legue being handed a match penalty for making an obscene gesture to an official after he was called for hooking in the 56th minute.
Afterwards, Simon admitted his frustrations but insisted his team were still very much in the title race with two months of the regular season still to go.
"I'm so disappointed that we didn't show up to play on such a big occasion," said Simon. "But games like this happen, we don't like it but they happen. We are still a good hockey team.
"This is the team that went seven wins on the bounce. I'm not going to discard them after one game. Cardiff are a good hockey team and I won't take anything away from them, but tonight things just got away from us.
"Luckily, we're back on the ice this weekend which is a good thing because there is nothing worse than dwelling on a bad night for too long."