MATHIEU ROY struck a late overtime winner to leave Sheffield Steelers one win away from a first Elite League title since 2011.
The 28-year-old scored with just 13 seconds remaining at the National Ice Centre to give Steelers a dramatic 4-3 win and send them two points clear of second-placed Cardiff Devils, who visit the Motorpoint Arena tonight.
A win for Gerad Adams’s team on home ice will see them lift the Monteith Bowl for the first time since Ben Simon’s team pipped the same team to the regular season championship in 2011.
In order to keep themselves in pole position, however, the visitors had to do it the hard way in Nottingham – their hosts determined to put a dent in their rivals’ title ambitions while also looking to secure the Erhardt Conference.
Panthers went ahead through Sam Oakford’s ninth-minute strike and that is the way it stayed in the first period, even though Steelers outshot their opponents by two-to-one.
Less than two minutes into the second and it got worse for Steelers when Greg Jacina struck to double the home side’s lead.
But, the deficit was halved less than three minutes later when Mike Forney was on hand to bring his side back into the game with his 42nd goal of the campaign.
Ben O’Connor’s short-handed strike at 32.05 drew the visitors level, but no more goals arrived until the last 10 minutes.
Brandon Benedict scored on the powerplay for the Panthers at 52.50, but it was that man Roy – so often the saviour for the South Yorkshire club – who hauled his team level at 57.32.
While a point proved enough for Nottingham to seal their first Conference title it looked like a shoot-out would be required to determine who would pick up the extra point.
But, with Evan Mosey in the penalty box on a tripping call, up popped Roy with his last-gasp overtime winner.
Hull Stingrays will be hoping to clinch a sixth-place finish for the regular season as they finish with two road games this weekend.
Saturday sees them head to Braehead, who will going all out to maintain their title push while keeping one eye on events in South Yorkshire.
A defeat in Belfast for current sixth-placed team Coventry Blaze means Omar Pacha’s team head to Scotland knowing a win gives them hope of leapfrogging the West Midlands team, who they visit tomorrow night.
Hull are currently eighth with Fife Flyers sandwiching in-between them and Coventry, who are three points ahead of both teams having played a game more.
Injuries have hit Hull in recent weeks, but player-coach Pacha is looking for his team to try and build momentum going into the play-offs.
“There is still a chance we can finish sixth or seventh and we want to seize that opportunity,” said Pacha. “Our mindset is we want to win both games this weekend.
“It is not the time to shut off, we don’t want to pick up any bad habits. We want to play our best and build on the good things we can do.”