JEFF Legue fired an overtime winner to complete a dramatic comeback by Sheffield Steelers in a 2-1 win over Elite League leaders Belfast Giants on Friday night, writes Phil Harrison.
Ryan Finnerty’s team looked to be dead and buried at the Motorpoint Arena after a John Pelle goal separated the two sides from the 13th minute until the dying seconds of the third period when Ashley Tait levelled.
Despite claims from the visitors that a hand pass had been involved in the build-up - which saw defenceman Jeff Mason handed a 10-minute misconduct penalty - the goal stood to take the top-of-the-table clash into overtime.
And it was Legue’s goal 40 seconds in that proved an even more controversial moment with the Belfast players - plus head coach Doug Christiansen - vehemently protesting to the officials that the Canadian playmaker was offside before he fired the puck past goaltender Stephen Murphy.
But the home side and their fans were too busy celebrating a memorable win to notice the arguments going on elsewhere on the ice, the extra point gained by them having cut the gap between the two sides to seven points, with third-placed Sheffield still having six games in hand.
“It went back and forth all game,“ said a delighted Finnerty afterwards, “There were two good teams going at it out there. We definitely deserved to get the one point and the overtime is always a bit of a crap shoot, but we’re happy to take the second point and move on.
“We were disciplined tonight, very disciplined and that was key. We forced a lot penalties on them, particularly in the third - all of which were in their defensive zone and those kind of penalties usually happen when a team is under stress.
“You’ve got to give a lot of credit to the boys, because they kept it busy and kept moving their feet. It could have gone either way but we deserved the bounces and I think we played pretty well.”
Steelers handed a debut to new import Francis Trudel which meant forward Neil Clark sat out as the spare import, with Finnerty keen to add an extra pair of legs to a defensive core which had been down on numbers since Rod Sarich suffered a serious kidney injury three weeks ago.
In what was, not surprisingly, a fairly even first period, it was Belfast who broke the deadlock at 12.43 when Pelle fired past John Decaro from three yards out following a neat feed from Craig Peacock, who had combined with Mason in a swift break up the ice.
It remained close throughout the second, although Belfast took control at the midway point, at times stretching Steelers’ defence without finding a way past a solid-looking Decaro.
Down the other end Colt King and Lee Esders came closest to scoring for the home side. King looked destined to score when some slick interplay saw the puck back on his stick with only Murphy to beat from a few yards out, but the 28-year-old opted for another pass when a shot seemed the better option. Esders went close when he neatly deflected a Jason Hewitt pass which was only kept out by the outstretched pad of Murphy.
Steelers upped the tempo and pressure in the third, with King in particular proving a menace as he fizzed in and around the Belfast net.
As a result, the visitors took a succession of minor penalties and the Steelers finally got their reward, with good work by captain Jonathan Phillips and Finnerty creating an opening for the unmarked Tait, who fired past Murphy with just 42 seconds remaining.
That brought about Mason’s exit due to his protests at the build-up play and it wasn’t long before the Belfast players were again cursing the officials after Legue struck the game-winning goal, Aaron Clarke the man who was eventually handed a match penalty.
Second-placed Nottingham Panthers also kept up the pressure when their 6-2 home win over Edinburgh Capitals took them to within four points of leaders Belfast with a game in hand.
Steelers head to Coventry Blaze on Saturday night to try and maintain their bid to secure the last remaining Challenge Cupo semi-final spot. They are then back in Sheffield to welcome Braehead Clan (5pm).