REGARDLESS of who takes over as Sheffield Steelers head coach next season, the name of Anthony DeLuca must surely feature near the top of the ‘retain’ list.
Whether the Steelers go for wholesale roster changes like they did last summer under previous coach Paul Thompson or not, there will need to be a core retained.
As is often the case, the homegrown players will form the majority of the group that sticks around, with a handful of imports thrown in, presumably, for good measure.
And after scoring four goals in a rousing 5-4 win over champions Cardiff Devils at Sheffield Arena on Saturday night, Canadian forward DeLuca did his own claims of returning next season no narm at all - should he want to come back to South Yorkshire.
Previously this season, the Steelers - who surely now have one foot in the playoffs as a result of this victory - had been found wanting against the two-time champions, losing all five previous encounters, the three on the road being the most painful with 19 goals scored against, with only four in reply.
It was the most recent two meetings to the Viola Arena that had hurt head coach Tom Barrasso, who was keen for his team to show they could compete with the best.
He got what he was looking for in a gritty performance, something that was required even more when the hosts were left with just four defenceman after losing Ben O’Connor to a left leg injury in the second period.
And while it might have been DeLuca who rightfully took most of the plaudits, Barrasso was pleased to see how much the whole team contributed.
“We were fully focussed on this game for a whole week, just trying to show Cardiff that we were able to compete with them a little better than the last two times we had been down there,” said Barrasso.
“The 13-3 combined score of those two game, we didn’t want that to be a sole representative of what we are as a group and I like the fight we showed tonight.
“I really liked our first period, we generated a bunch of offence, we did a good job in the defensive zone.
“At the end of the day I was confident if we could play for another 40 minutes like that we were going to generate enough offence to keep us in with a chance, regardless of whether that first goal counted or not.”
That ‘first goal’ Barrasso spoke of came with just one second of the first period remaining, DeLuca quickest to react to a rebound from goalie Ben Bowns to poke the puck over the line, the goal only being awarded after video review by the officials.
The next six minutes probably proved to be the most crucial of the match as the Steelers found themselves 3-0 ahead.
DeLuca pounced on a loose puck in centre ice before blazing down the middle to fire high past Bowns at 25.25 then, just 24 seconds later, after good forechecking by Evan McGrath saw his initial effort saved by Bowns, Jonathan Phillips prodded home the rebound from close in.
In what turned out to be a frantic middle period, the Devils got themselves back into the game with a power play strike from Mark Richardson, only for the Steelers to quickly restore their three-goal advantage less than a minute later when that man DeLuca fired past an unsuspecting Bowns from 15 yards out after a neat feed from McGrath.
Again the Devils responded, making it 5-2 at 31.36 through Joey Martin before further reducing the deficit early in the third period when Mike Hedden fired past an on-song Jackson Whistle.
But, just when they needed him again, DeLuca turned up trumps once more, breaking free before firing through Bowns’s legs at 57.25.
Cardiff pushed hard thereafter, desperate not to cede any ground to title rivals Belfast Giants but, despite out-shooting the Steelers 50-24 on the night - and 23-6 in the final period - they only had one more goal to show for their efforts, Hedden’s second at 57.32 proving no more than a late consolation.