Paul Thompson’s team headed to Nottingham Panthers’ home – also the scene for next weekend’s Final Four Weekend – in good spirits having won five out of six and having enjoyed superiority over their fiercest rivals in the 12 games previously played between them.
But they stumbled in at the end of the first period of their quarter-final first leg shell-shocked and trailing 4-0, a deficit from which they never recovered.
They did manage to reduce the deficit to 4-2 with just over five minutes remaining, but a killer blow arrived from the stick of Chris Lawrence with just 10 seconds on the clock, handing the Panthers a comfortable 5-2 win ahead of Sunday night’s second leg at Sheffield Arena.
Alex Nikiforuk got the breakthrough with 4.55 on the clock before the Steelers ran into penalty trouble to hand their hosts an even bigger advantage.
With defenceman Zack Fitzgerald in the box on a cross-checking call, former Steelers’ forward Robert Farmer doubled his side’s advantage at 8.54.
It was two further goals in the space of just 48 seconds that pole-axed the visitors. Andreas Valdix was sent to the box on for charging to allow Brad Moran to make it 3-0 at 11.04 before Brad McGrattan added a fourth.
The Steelers came out for the second period and could do nothing but improve, bossing the second period but only having the one goal to show for their efforts through a 25th-minute powerplay strike from Levi Nelson.
In the third it was a similar story, the Steelers enjoying the greater possession and comfortably out-shooting their hosts once more, their pressure eventually paying off with another powerplay strike in the 55th minute when, with Farmer penalised for tripping, Geoff Walker made it 4-2.
Given the situation they had found themselves in after less than 12 minutes, that was a scoreline the Steelers would perhaps have been happy with heading back up the M1 to South Yorkshire.
But their mood will have been made considerably darker on the coach ride home when, with just 10 seconds remaining, another former forward of theirs came back to haunt them, Lawrence finding a way past Mustukovs for what – over the two legs – could prove to be the most telling strike of all.