IT didn’t take long for Sheffield Steelers to make an impact in Nottingham on Saturday night, but they were made to fight until the very last minute before being allowed to relax and celebrate two crucial points.
The 5-4 win over their fiercest rivals in this weekend’s double-header - the two go at it again at Sheffield Arena on Sunday (5pm) - means that Paul Thompson’s team at least prevented leaders Cardiff Devils extending their 13-point advantage at the top of the Elite League standings.
That gap can be reduced by a further two points come the end of the weekend with Andrew Lord’s side - who won 6-2 at home to Edinburgh - not in action.
Whether it will be closer to resembling the 8-1 triumph the Steelers’ enjoyed over Nottingham the last time the Panthers visited South Yorkshire in November or more like Saturday night’s tense, nine-goal thriller is anyone’s guess.
The visitors - already boosted by the reeturn of Swedish forward Yared Hagos after a concussion – took the lead in the fourth minute when Mathieu Roy scored on the powerplay with Panthers’ Dan Spang in the penalty box. But Nottingham responded six minutes later through Brad Moran, just six seconds into a powerplay brought about by a high sticks call on Steelers’ Zack Fitzgerald. Less than two minutes later, the hosts were ahead through Matt Carter.
But it was the Steelers who were the happier of the two sides going into the first break, John Armstrong benefitting from some good work by captain Jonathan Phillips to level at 12.11 before Ben O’Connor edged his team ahead on the powerplay just over two minutes later.
Early in the second, with Armstrong serving a tripping penalty, Panthers’ Chris Lawrence levelled matters against the club he briefly played for last season only for Robert Dowd to fire home his team’s third powerplay goal of the night to edge the clash Steelers’ way one more time just after the halfway point.
The Steelers suffered a blow shortly after Dowd’s strike, however, when Fitzgerald left the ice after Panthers’ Brian McGrattan – previously sent to the box for a five-minute major after tussling with Guillaume Desbiens - was sent to the box again on an elbowing call, with Fitzgerald extremely doubtful for Sunday’s rematch.
The points looked secure for the defending league champions when Markus Nilsson pounced at 52.25, although it proved to be an extremely tense finish after Carter grabbed his second of the night just over a minute later, the Steelers hanging on for two hard-fought points.
Given the Elite League’s recent clampdown on criticism of officials and their decisions, Thompson remained tight-lipped about the second period elbowing call on McGrattan, but was clearly happy to pick up two vital points.
Any time you can win in Nottingham it is a good nightSheffield Steelers’ head coach, Paul Thompson.
“Any time you can win in Nottingham it is a good night,” said Thompson afterwards. “It got a little bit tense towards the end when they got one back and it was 6-on-5 but it is always good to win here.
“It was good to see Markus come up with a game-winning goal and we scored three powerplay goals which is always welcome.
“We lost Fitzgerald to a hit to the head, but I can’t comment on what happened so we’ll just have to review the video and see where that takes us. It’s very doubtful whether Fitzy will play on Sunday.”
Braehead Clan 4 Dundee Stars 6
Cardiff Devils 6 Edinburgh Capitals 2
Fife Flyers 3 Belfast Giants 2 (OT)
Manchester Storm 0 Coventry Blaze 2
Nottingham Panthers 4 Sheffield Steelers 5