SHEFFIELD STEELERS’ captain Jonathan Phillips suggested ahead of the weekend that his team had used up all their lives in their three-way battle for the Elite League title with Cardiff Devils and Belfast Giants.
On Sunday night at Altrincham Ice Arena, they found another one to use up.
Having dispensed with Manchester Storm 3-1 in clinical fashion at Sheffield Arena on Saturday, the Steelers entered Sunday’s swift rematch across the Pennines knowing two points were a must after leaders Cardiff overcame second-placed Belfast twice in as many nights to boost their chances of a first-ever EIHL regular season crown.
The Steelers faced off against Omar Pacha’s team for a second time in as many nights 10 points behind Cardiff with a game in hand and two dates with their South Wales rivals to come.
Courtesy of an overtime winner from defenceman Jace Coyle, that gap is now eight points and hope remains of a record sixth league title for the Steelers.
But they need help from elsewhere if they are to overhaul Cardiff. And fast.
As well as those two home encounters with Cardiff in March, third-placed Steelers only have eight other games in which to somehow overturn the deficit, one of those being a tricky trip to Belfast, who remain a point ahead of Paul Thompson’s team having played a game more.
All eyes will be focused on that particular weekend – unless Cardiff somehow have the title sewn up before then – with Steelers’ trip to Northern Ireland coming 24 hours before the Devils visit South Yorkshire for the second time in eight days.
But, for now, the Steelers have kept themselves in the hunt, but only after giving their faithful travelling support an almighty scare before maintaining their perfect record for the season over a Storm side locked in a four-way battle at the bottom of the table for the final two play-off places.
It all started so well for the visitors when Levi Nelson opened the scoring at 4.59 before Mathieu Roy doubled the advantage on the power play less than two minutes later.
But a determined Storm side rallied and halved the deficit before the first break when Patrik Valcak struck on the power play at 18.39 while Steelers’ Andres Franzon was in the penalty box on an interference call.
Shortly before the halfway mark the hosts drew level, again on the powerplay, when Jack Prince made the most of the enforced absence of former Storm defenceman Davey Phillips for a delay of game call.
And it was a second power play strike on the night that put the Steelers ahead once again, the regularly effective Nelson grabbing his second at 34.31.
But just as the Steelers looked to be heading back to South Yorkshire with both points, their plans were put on hold when Valcak struck for his second after Storm had pulled goalie Mike Clemente in favour of the extra attacker.
Nerves began to get the better of both sides until Coyle grabbed the all-important winner 163 seconds into overtime to seal what could yet be the most crucial of two points for the defending champions.
On Saturday, with defensive veteran Rod Sarich back among their ranks as an extra voice on the bench alongside Thompson and assistant Jerry Andersson, the Steelers always looked likely to record their fifth win of the campaign over Manchester.
A tight first period that was low on goal-scoring opportunities did not see the deadlock broken until the 14th minute, Robert Dowd benefitting from good work in the corner by Andreas Valdix and Nelson before breaking free to backhand past Clemente.
The home fans were out of their seats less than a minute later when Guillaume Desbiens got himself into the perfect position in front of Clemente to tip in Ben O’Connor’s rasping shot.
It was another O’Connor drive – this time from the left-hand side boards – that saw the Steelers make it 3-0 in the 35th minute when Roy cleverly deflected the puck past Clemente.
At the other end, Steelers net minder Ervins Mustukovs’s hopes of a third straight shutout following wins over Edinburgh and Nottingham were denied when, with less than two minutes remaining, Storm’s top goalscorer Darian Dziurzynski reacted quickest to a rebound to grab a powerplay consolation for the visitors.
Steelers are next in action against bottom club Edinburgh Capitals at Ice Sheffield on Wednesday (7.30pm) – 24 hours after Cardiff head to the East Midlands for a tricky date with Nottingham Panthers.