SHEFFIELD STEELERS remained in the Elite League title hunt after a 3-1 win over Manchester Storm - but events elsewhere means their window of opportunity is closing all the time.
Leaders Cardiff Devils made it two wins in as many nights at second-placed Belfast Giants, stretching their lead in the standings over their hosts to seven points as well as maintaining their 10-point advantage over third-placed Steelers.
With 11 games remaining, the Steelers have a game in hand on Cardiff and two home games to come against Andrew Lord’s team. But the reality is they need help from elsewhere - and fast.
The closest the Steelers can get to Cardiff through their own hard work is within four points. The Devils need to slip up at least twice elsewhere in regulation to give Paul Thompson’s team a sniff and, given they are on an eight-game winning streak after their double triumph at the SSE Arena, it appears unlikely.
But strange things do happen and the Steelers can still hope that the growing pressure of landing a first-ever EIHL regular season title has an adverse effect on their South Wales rivals.
With defensive veteran Rod Sarich back among the ranks as an extra voice on the bench on Saturday night, the Steelers were rarely in danger against a Storm outfit determined to avoid being sucked into a four-way battle for the last two play-off places.
In a tight first period that was low on goal-scoring opportunities it took until the 14th minute for the deadlock to be broken, Robert Dowd benefitting from good work in the corner from Andreas Valdix and Levi Nelson before breaking free to backhand past Storm goalie Mike 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 Mathieu Roy cleverly deflected the puck past the helpless Storm netminder.
At the other end, Steelers goalie Ervins Mustukovs’ 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.